Two Koreas to form united women’s ice hockey team, to march together at Winter Olympics' opening

South Korean and North Korean athletes marching together during the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Turin.
A South Korean soldier and policeman stand guard as a bus transporting a South Korean delegation for inter-Korea working-level talks passes a military checkpoint leading to the border truce village of Panmunjom on January 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - The two Koreas on Wednesday (Jan 17) agreed to form a united women's hockey team for next month's Winter Olympics and march together under a pro-unification flag at the opening ceremony.

It will be the first inter-Korean joint march at the opening ceremony of an international sports competition in 11 years.

Following a working-level meeting held at the truce village of Panmunjom on Wednesday (Jan 17), both sides also agreed to hold a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in the North .

A North Korean delegation will visit the South next week to review the facilities at the Games venue, Yonhap news agency reported. South Korea also agreed to send its athletes to the North's Masikryong ski resort for training ahead of the Feb 9 to 25 Games.

The North's 550-member delegation comprises 230 cheerleaders, a 30-strong taekwondo delegation, a 150-member delegation for the Paralympics and a 140-member art troupe.

They will travel by land through Kaesong, which lies on the main road from Pyongyang to Seoul. Seoul has long sought to proclaim the event a "peace Olympics" in the face of tensions over the North's weapons programmes and the discussions represent a marked improvement in inter-Korean ties.

Critics have slammed Seoul's proposal to field a unified team in women's ice hockey, accusing the government of robbing some of its ice hockey players of the opportunity to compete at the Olympics for the sake of political purposes.

Tens of thousands have signed dozens of online petitions on the President's website urging leader Moon Jae In to scrap the plan.

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Catch a glimpse of daily life in North Korea, one of the world's most reclusive countries. The Straits Times spent a week in its capital Pyongyang in October.

"Our players trained so hard for years to compete at the Olympics... and a joint team with the North would render such efforts a waste for many of them," stated one of the petitions. South Korea team coach Sarah Murray said her players would suffer as a result of any such move.

"I am kind of shocked this happened so close to the Olympics," she said, adding team chemistry would suffer.

South Korea qualified for the ice hockey tournament only as hosts, rather than on merit, and are not seen as medal contenders.

The two Koreas will discuss the results of their talks with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday.

The IOC must approve extra Olympic slots for the North's athletes after they failed to qualify or missed deadlines to register.

The series of talks comes after the North's leader Kim Jong Un abruptly announced his willingness to take part in the upcoming Games in his New Year speech.

The move was seen as a bid to ease searing tensions on the peninsula and was rapidly welcomed by Seoul.

Last year the nuclear-armed North tested missiles capable of reaching its "enemy" the US and Kim traded threats of war with US President Donald Trump.

The alpine county of Pyeongchang is located just 80 km south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula.

"Inter-Korean relations have been strained for almost 10 years," the North's chief delegate Jon Jong Su said as the meeting started on the southern side of the border truce village of Panmunjom.

"We hope that ties can open," he added.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the world should not be naive about North Korea's "charm offensive" over the Olympics.

"It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea," Kono said. "The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working."

Paik Hak Soon, the director of the Centre for North Korean studies at Sejong Institute in South Korea, said North Korea was using the cheering squad to draw attention to its apparent cooperative spirit.

"Seeing good results in competitions thanks to the cheering squad would enable the North Koreans to say they contributed to a successful Olympics and the South Korean government would likely agree," said Paik.

"In the end, they are using this old tactic to get to Washington through Seoul."

Earlier this week the Yonhap news agency quoted an anonymous sports ministry official as saying there were no plans for unified teams in any other disciplines.

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