SEOUL (Reuters) – A delegation of North Korean officials and ice hockey players crossed the heavily guarded border into South Korea on Thursday for joint training of the Olympic Games, while Pyongyang asked all Koreans to seek unification of the two nations.
The group included 12 players from North Korea who will form a combined team of women's ice hockey with their southern counterparts at next month's Winter Olympics in the South Korean mountain resort of Pyeongchang.
After crossing the South Korean checkpoints on the border, the team traveled to a national training center in Jincheon, 90 km (56 miles) south of Seoul.
When getting off a bus, the athletes ignored the questions as they were attacked by crowds of media.
They wore swollen winter jackets in the white, blue and red colors of the North Korean flag, with "DPR Korea" stamped on the back, referring to the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
At Jincheon, the athletes were greeted by South Korea coach Sarah Murray, who previously described the government's decision to form a joint "difficult situation" team.
According to an agreement resolved during the first official talks between two Koreas in two years, the joint team will wear unitary jerseys and march under a flag of the unified peninsula at the opening ceremony of the Games on February 9.
South Korea prepared "all contingency scenarios" should North Korea make proactive moves during the Olympics, but the games remain an opportunity for a "peaceful compromise," the Foreign Minister told Reuters. Foreign of South Korea, Kang Kyung-wha, in an interview under the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "We just have to take advantage of it."
Early on Thursday, North Korea sent a rare ad aimed at "all Koreans inside and outside the country," saying that they should make a "breakthrough" for unification without the help of other countries, their officials said. state media.
All Koreans should "promote contact, travel, cooperation between North Korea and South Korea" and, at the same time, add that Pyongyang will "crush" all the challenges against the reunification of the Korean peninsula.
North Korea and South Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. Tensions intensified dramatically last year when the Kim Jong Un regime intensified its program aimed at developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.
PEACE OR PROPAGANDA?
Some opposition politicians and conservatives in South Korea have criticized Pyongyang's participation in the Pyeongchang Games, saying that Kim was using North Korea's participation for its own purposes.
Many other South Korea welcomed North participation, but complained that the unified women's ice hockey team – the only joint team that had been formed – was unfair to the players.
The controversy has sent the general approval rating of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to below 60 percent for the first time since he took office in May last year, according to a poll published on Thursday by the South Korean pollster. Realmeter, falling more than 6 percent since last week.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence plans to use his attendance at the Games to try to counter what he sees as Kim's efforts to "hijack" the games with a propaganda campaign, a White House official said on Tuesday.
Washington has been pushing for tougher sanctions against North Korea in isolation and on Wednesday imposed new sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six ships from North Korea. He also urged China and Russia, North Korea's main allies, to expel the North Koreans who raise funds for the programs.
The South Korean government has rejected criticism that the games had been hijacked by North Korea, saying the event will help defuse tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program.
Military tension on the Korean peninsula was a "fundamental obstacle" to the improvement of inter-Korean relations and unification, the official news agency of the North said in its statement on Thursday.
He added joint military exercises with "external forces" that were useless for the development of relations between North Korea and South Korea.
South Korea successfully lobbied the United States to delay large-scale annual drills involving troops from the two countries until after the Olympics, but Washington officials have rejected the idea of a permanent high to the exercises in exchange for North Korea freeze their missile and nuclear weapons tests.
The proposal to delay the exercise was based on the "spirit of the Olympic Games," said Foreign Minister Kang, and declined to give details on whether the South would resume the drills after the event.
Additional reporting by Yuna Park, Hyonhee Shin and Haejin Choi at SEOUL, and Soyoung Kim at DAVOS, Switzerland; Written by Josh Smith; Lincoln Feast edition