Olympic talks between two Koreas boost hopes for reopening of inter-Korean land routes

South Korean chief delegate Chun Hae Sung (right) shaking hands with North Korean chief delegate Jon Jong Su as they exchange joint statements during their working-level talks.
South Korean chief delegate Chun Hae Sung (right) shaking hands with North Korean chief delegate Jon Jong Su as they exchange joint statements during their working-level talks. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - North Korea's offer on Wednesday (Jan 17) to send its delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics via a land route raised hopes for the reopening of inter-Korean road links for the first time in two years, Yonhap news agency reported.

Working-level officials from both sides met to discuss details of the North's participation in next month's Winter Games, including the size of the delegation, a travel route, accommodation and other logistics.

The North proposed that its delegation, including athletes, officials and cheerleaders, use a western land road, which was once used by South Korean companies operating in a joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong, Yonhap said.

If the South agrees, the road would be reopened for the first time since February 2016, when Seoul shut down the factory park in response to the North's nuclear and missile tests.

In the past, 124 South Korean firms that ran factories at the complex used the route for entry, exit and the transportation of goods.

The two Koreas had used two land routes in the western and eastern areas since 2000, when a historic summit sparked a flurry of inter-Korean exchanges.

The eastern road was mainly used for southern travellers to Mount Kumgang on the North's east coast, before the joint tour programme was suspended in 2008 after a South Korean woman was fatally shot by a North Korean soldier there.

The road was also used for events held at the mountain resort for temporary reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Such an event has not been held since October 2015 due to strained ties, Yonhap added.

During Wednesday's talks, the two sides discussed whether to hold a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang to celebrate the PyeongChang Olympics before the games begin on Feb 9.

They also discussed the possibility of using the Masikryong Ski Resort on North Korea's east coast for athlete training, Yonhap said.

The lavish ski resort opened in December 2013 as one of the pet projects of its leader Kim Jong Un, who reportedly enjoyed skiing while attending school in Switzerland in the early 1990s.

"North Korea seems to want to express its hope for the resumption of the Kaesong complex and the tour project at Mount Kumgang," Cheong Seong Chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, told Yonhap.

At a separate meeting on Monday, the North asked the South to allow its art troupe to cross the border via the truce village of Panmunjom inside the heavily guarded Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the venue for the ongoing inter-Korean dialogue.

The factory zone and the tour project were two of North Korea's main sources of cash revenue.

The country is under heavy international sanctions aimed at curbing inflows of hard currency over its nuclear and missile aspirations.

South Korea made clear that discussions in connection with the Olympics have nothing to do with the resumption of the tour program.

The South earlier said that the resumption of the Kaesong complex and the tour program could be possible when there is progress on resolving the issue of the North's nuclear weapons development.

"There is no change in the government's stance that there should be some progress in resolving the nuclear standoff with the North (in order to resume such projects)," a government official said.

Liberal President Moon Jae In took office in May last year, vowing to seek both dialogue and sanctions. He has said that putting sanctions and pressure on the North is aimed at prodding Pyongyang into dialogue.

Moon also hopes that better inter-Korean relations will pave the way for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and for broader dialogue between the United States and the North.