SEOUL • The Pyeongchang Games could get a milestone win even before the first 2018 Winter Olympics gold medal is handed out on Feb 10.
In a nod to the Olympic values of friendship and respect, North Korea could participate in the quadrennial Games. North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un had said in his New Year's address to the nation that "we are willing to take necessary measures (to contribute to a successful Pyeongchang Games), including to dispatch our delegation".
Yesterday, North Korea's International Olympic Committee (IOC) representative Chang Ung said the country expects to send a figure skating pair to compete in South Korea next month, reported Japan's Kyodo News. Mr Chang told reporters at Beijing's international airport that the duo "will probably participate", the news agency noted.
He arrived in Beijing from Pyongyang and is believed to be headed to Switzerland to discuss with the IOC North Korea's participation in the Games, Kyodo said, citing an unnamed source.
Seoul and organisers have billed the Feb 9-25 Games as a "peace Olympics", and have been keen for the North to take part. The event's organising chief Lee Hee Beom had raised the possibility of the two Koreas forming unified teams in figure skating and ice hockey for the Games, held 80km from the inter-Korean border.
Such a move would be significant beyond the sporting realm - it is a powerful symbol of reconciliation amid a tense stand-off over Pyongyang's defiant pursuit of nuclear and missiles programmes.
PARTICIPATION IN EARLIER GAMES
North Korea has taken part in international multisport events hosted by South Korea three times - in 2002, 2003 and 2014.
2002 ASIAN GAMES, BUSAN Sept 29-Oct 14
North Korea sent a 606-member delegation, comprising 184 athletes, 288 cheerleaders and 134 officers, to the 2002 Asian Games in the South Korean port city of Busan. Athletes from the two Koreas paraded together at the opening and closing ceremonies, a spectacle not seen since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China as relations chilled under nearly a decade of conservative rule in the South. The contingent travelled to Busan via North Korean flights and a cruise ship, using the vessel as their accommodation.
2003 SUMMER UNIVERSIADE, DAEGU Aug 21-31
A combined 528 North Koreans, including 303 cheerleaders and 94 athletes, attended the games. The two Koreas marched together at the ceremonies. North Korean athletes flew into South Korea and stayed at Daegu Bank Institute, a training facility for the local bank.
2014 ASIAN GAMES, INCHEON Sept 19-Oct 4
Pyongyang sent a total of 273 North Korean athletes and officials to the games. They took regular commercial flights of North Korea's Air Koryo and stayed at the athletes' village.
But Pyongyang dropped its plan to send a cheerleading squad amid deteriorating inter-Korean relations under the then Park Geun Hye administration.
Ahead of the games, the North also threatened to pull out of the event, accusing the South of plotting to block its athletes from taking part. The two Koreas did not march together at the ceremonies.
Both Koreas marched together at the 2000 Sydney Games' opening ceremony and have competed as a single nation in international table tennis and football matches. They have never joined forces at the Olympics or Asian Games.
North Korea participated in international multi-sports events hosted by South Korea three times - the 2002 Busan Asian Games, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2014 Incheon Asiad.
It has a long history at the Olympics and has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics since 1972, boycotting only Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988. It has long used sporting feats at major events to bolster its reputation abroad, winning 54 medals, including 16 golds, at the Summer Games, with weightlifting and wrestling its most successful sports.
Should it compete in Pyeongchang, it would be North Korea's ninth appearance at a Winter Games. Perhaps surprisingly for a mountainous country with cold winters, North Korea has won only two Winter Olympic medals since 1964.
Only two athletes - pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik - have qualified for next month's Games but the North Korean Olympic Committee missed the Oct 30 deadline to confirm with the International Skating Union that they would participate.
The pair could still compete if given an invitation by the IOC, while an IOC official said others could qualify for cross-country skiing and possibly speed skating and biathlon, a combination of skiing and shooting. Even if they do not, Mr Lee said, athletes may be invited to compete - a common Olympics practice to encourage participation by underdogs.
Another factor that could help seal North Korea's participation is its leader's love of sport. A basketball fan, Mr Kim has boosted spending on sports as part of his ambition to turn the North into a "sports power".
Since he assumed power in 2011, spending on sport in the nation's annual budgets has risen faster than most other areas, according to state media reports. He has urged his Workers' Party and athletes to help make sport part of daily life and uphold "the party's plan of building our country into a sports power, sweat more in training in order to bring glory to the country by winning gold medals".
Still, many observers worry that Pyongyang will use its participation in the Games to try to extract concessions. Former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner, who is now an expert on North Korea at the Heritage Foundation, said the joint procession at the 2000 Games may have looked hopeful but, behind the scenes, things were different. "North Korea had demanded and received a secret payment from Seoul, payment for the North's uniforms and agreement that the North's delegation would not be outnumbered by the South's - necessitating many South Korean athletes and coaches from not marching into the stadium," he wrote in an e-mail.
Yet, should the two Koreas march under a single flag at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium come Feb 9, few would deny that the unification will be worth its weight in gold.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST