SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and North Korea agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and march together in the Opening Ceremony for the first time since 2006.
The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee.
But they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring cooperation during the Olympics.
During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements including fielding a joint women’s hockey team and marching together under a blue and white “unification flag” depicting their peninsula in the Opening Ceremony, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.
A joint statement distributed by the ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation will travel to South Korea across their heavily fortified land border before the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Games.
It said the delegation will include a 230-member cheering group, a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team, journalists, athletes and officials.
Ahead of the Olympics, the Koreas will hold a joint cultural event at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain and have non-Olympic skiers train together at the North’s Masik ski resort, according to the statement.
It said the North also plans to send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics in March. The North earlier said it would send a 140-member art troupe.
The agreements are highly symbolic and emotional.
But it’s still not clear how many North Korean athletes will come to PyeongChang because none are currently qualified.
South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the IOC.
A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year’s Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation.
The IOC said recently it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the Games.
IOC officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the PyeongChang organizing committee in Switzerland on Saturday.
The IOC said in statement Wednesday that it has “taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources.”
“There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs (national Olympic committees) and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne,” it said.
The two Koreas sent joint teams to major international sports events twice previously, both in 1991.
One event was the world table tennis championships in Chiba, Japan, where the women’s team won the championship by beating the powerful Chinese, and the other was soccer’s World Youth Championship in Portugal, where the Korean team reached the quarterfinals.
During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of nine international sporting events including the 2000, 2004 and 2006 Olympics, but they failed to produce a joint team.
Their last joint march was at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.
The current reconciliation mood began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Games.
South Korea wants the IOC to allow its hockey team’s 23-player Olympic roster to be expanded so that several North Korean players can be added without removing any of the South Korean players.
But there are worries in South Korea that adding new players less than a month before the Olympics will weaken the team and deprive South Korean players of playing time.
Chief South Korean delegate Chun Hae-sung said the government is well aware of such concerns and North Korea has agreed that the South Korean coach Sarah Murray will be given full authority to select North Korean players to compete.
“If South and North Korea form one team and compete in the Games, that will be an everlasting historic event, which I think will move our people and people around the world,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday.
Murray said a joint team would be a distraction and present challenges, according to Yonhap News Agency.
“I think there is damage to our player,” Murray said Tuesday, according to Yonhap. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.
“This is another distraction, and we have to worry about things we can control. We can’t control this situation.
“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long. Teaching systems and different things … I’d have about a month to teach these (new) players the way our team plays. That makes me a little nervous.
“I hope that I am not being pressured to play (North Koreans). I am hoping we can just play the way we play and not have the influence of, ‘I need to play this player.’ I just want the best players to play. If you play your best, then you earn your ice time. Whether you’re South Korean or North Korean, they have to earn their place.”
North Korea boycotted the previous Olympics held in South Korea, the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.
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