North Korean venues deemed apt for joint practices: Seoul’s Ministry of Unification

The South Korean delegation leave for North Korea at the immigration office in Goseong, Gangwon, South Korea, on Jan 23, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A slope of the Masikryong ski resort, near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan, on Feb 19, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Key North Korean venues suggested for joint skiing training and culture events ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month have been deemed apt for use, Seoul's Ministry of Unification said Friday (Jan 26).

The announcement follows a three-day visit to North Korea by a 12-member delegation led by Lee Joo Tae, director-general for inter-Korean exchange and cooperation at the Unification Ministry. Before returning home late Thursday, the delegation visited key venues suggested for joint cultural performance and ski training, including Kumgangsan Resort and the Masikryong ski slopes -- all clustered in the eastern region.

"The Masikryong Ski Resort's slopes and quality of snow were 'decent,' there were gates installed, gondolas and ski lifts were also under normal operation," a Unification Ministry official from the delegation said, adding there was no problem using the slopes for the joint practice.

The two Koreas agreed to hold joint ski training on the North's eastern slopes of Masikryong, which opened in 2013 and what experts say was inspired by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's time in Switzerland.

The members of the youth national team are likely to participate in the training, the South's Korea Ski Association said, instead of athletes directly competing at the Winter Games.

The specific timeframe for the two-day training session is yet to be confirmed, but the official said it could start as early as Jan 31.

North Korean Olympians will compete in both cross-country and alpine skiing at the Feb 9-25 Games.

Kalma Airport, a military airfield that could be used to transport South Koreans participating in the skiing session, was also in decent shape, according to the ministry official.

The inspection team, which included officials from the South's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, checked the airport runway and other apparatus for safety measures. The airfield is a 45-minute drive from the ski resort, said the official.

The official hinted the South's delegation may use an airport in Yangyang, Gangwon Province, to fly to the North.

On Thursday, an unnamed senior official at the KSA said South Korea is willing to review a plan to form a joint cross-country skiing team with North Korea.

The two Koreas have already agreed to form a unified team for women's hockey. Twelve North Korean hockey players joined the South Korean team in a training centre in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, Thursday.

On the venue for a joint cultural event, the official said South Korea is considering Kumgangsan Culture Center, which has 620 seats, as top candidate. The centre was jointly built in 1999, with South Korean conglomerate Hyundai in charge of construction and reportedly investing 46 billion won ($43 million) in the project.

The Kumgangsan Resort and the family reunion centre nearby were runner-ups, but both were not designed for cultural performances on many levels, the official explained.

Media here have speculated the joint event is likely to be held on Feb 4 at Kumkangsan, but the official did not confirm an exact time nor details for the performance.

On whether K-pop artists would join the event, the official only said they are considering showcasing South Korean "contemporary music." But the idea of staging K-pop performances were delivered to the North, added the official.

"The South is considering playing modern and traditional music and holding literary events. The North said it would focus on traditional music," the official said.

Kim Young Jun, CEO of the state-run Korea Creative Content Agency and a K-pop expert, was part of the advance team. His participation has heightened expectations of K-pop elements being incorporated or featured in the joint performance.

K-pop artists such as Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L performed in Pyongyang in 1999, while Baby Vox and Shinhwa performed there in 2003.

Kumkangsan Culture Center was a popular stop in the long since suspended cross-border tour program to the mountain, where tourists could enjoy shows featuring North Korean performance teams, including acrobatics. Tours to the Kumkangsan resort were halted in 2008 following an incident in which a North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean tourist.

Overall, the Unification Ministry said details linked to both joint training and culture performance will need to be further discussed through the inter-Korean communication line.

The announcement also comes as a separate North Korean advance team of senior sports officials are inspecting competition venues in the host city of Pyeongchang and nearby Gangneung, Gangwon Province. They are set to wrap-up their three-day trip on Saturday.

Last week, the International Olympics Committee and the two Koreas reached an agreement on the North's participation in next month's Winter Games in the South. Twenty-two North Korean athletes will compete in ice hockey, ice skating and skiing across five disciplines -- ice hockey, figure skating, short track speedskating, cross-country skiing and alpine skiing.

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