South Korea welcomes North’s Olympic offer

President Moon Jae-in says the South should ensure North Korea can send a team to the Winter Games.

South Korea has offered high-level talks with North Korea on 9 January to discuss its possible participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

It comes after the North’s leader Kim Jong-un said he was considering sending a team to Pyeongchang in South Korea for the Games in February.

He said the two sides should “urgently meet to discuss the possibility”.

South Korea’s president said he saw the offer as a “groundbreaking chance” to improve relations.

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in also said the North’s nuclear programme would be the backdrop of any sporting discussions.

“The improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear programme, so the foreign ministry should co-ordinate closely with allies and the international community regarding this,” said Mr Moon.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon proposed on Tuesday that representatives could meet at Panmunjom, the so-called “truce village”.

The village, in the heavily guarded demilitarised zone (DMZ) at the border, is where the Koreas have historically held talks.

“We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties,” said Mr Cho.

It is not yet known who will be attending the proposed talks next week – if anyone, as North Korea has yet to respond.

President Moon said he wanted his ministers to act fast to ensure the North’s delegation attended.

Hyung Eun Kim from the BBC’s Korean service said if the two countries did meet, they were expected to talk logistics – about the North’s route into the host country, whether the athletes would come with a cheer squad, and whether the two countries would issue a joint declaration.

The last high-level talks took place in December 2015 in the Kaesong joint industrial zone.

They ended without any agreement and the meeting’s agenda was not made public.

In July 2017, South Korea proposed two bilateral meetings: one focusing on military talks and another that would reunite families separated by the war.

Neither happened and instead the North continued to fire test missiles.

North Korea’s leader took many people by surprise when he said he was “open to dialogue” with his neighbours in his New Year’s Day speech on Monday.

“The year 2018 is a significant year for both the North and the South, with the North marking the 70th anniversary of its birth and the South hosting the Winter Olympics.

“We should melt the frozen North-South relations, thus adorning this meaningful year as a year to be specially recorded in the history of the nation,” he said.

It came shortly after he made repeated threats against the US, saying nuclear button was “always on my table”.

North Korea has in the past two years quickly advanced its nuclear and convention weapons programmes, despite increasing international sanctions.

Analysts said the slight move towards the South could be designed to enforce a break from Washington’s hardline approach, which encourages all countries to isolate North Korea.

South Korea had been discussing this latest step with the United States, said the South’s unification minister.

The only two North Korean athletes who qualified for the Games are figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik.

Although the North has missed the official deadline to confirm their participation, the skaters could still compete via an invitation from the International Olympic Committee.

North Korea’s KCNA state media said on Tuesday that the country was “filled with firm determination to achieve fresh victory” in the Games.

The president of the Pyeongchang Games’ organising committee, Lee Hee-beom, had earlier told South Korea’s news agency Yonhap that he was delighted to hear of the North’s potential participation.

“It’s like a New Year’s gift,” he said.

North Korea has participated in the Olympics before, but not in South Korea. It boycotted the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

North Korean athletes have won a total of 56 Olympic medals, only two of which were from the Winter Games.

Pyeongchang, approximately 180 km (110 miles) east of Seoul, will host both the Winter Olympics in February and the Winter Paralympics in March.

In its international marketing, South Korea is spelling the city with an upper-case letter in the middle – PyeongChang – in a bid to differentiate it from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

In 2014, Daniel Olomae Ole Sapit, a member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya, ended buying a ticket to North Korea by mistake when trying to attend a UN conference in Pyeongchang.

He was interrogated on arrival and fined $500 (£370; 415 euros).

“He was regarded as a spy, a somewhat strange spy,” said a South Korean minister afterwards, according to Reuters news agency.

Average rail ticket prices go up by 3.4% across the UK – the biggest increase in five years.

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