Winter Olympics 2018: North Korean athletes land in South

The 32-member delegation led by North Korean Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U, which includes 10 athletes, landed in Gangneung, on South Korea's east coast, eight days ahead of the Winter Olympics.

South Korean skiers wave to the media before their departure to North Korea at Yangyang International Airport in Yangyang, South Korea, on Wednesday.   -  AP

North Korean skiers and skaters arrived in the South on Thursday to take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Games, setting the stage for a "peace Olympics" after a year of high tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

Eight days before the opening ceremony, the 10 athletes were among a delegation that landed in Gangneung, on South Korea's east coast, after a rare direct flight between the two halves of the divided peninsula — for which a special exemption had to be sought from US sanctions.

In black fur hats, they made their way through the terminal and onto buses without saying a word to a pursuing pack of reporters, while well-wishers outside held up banners depicting reunification flags — a blue Korean peninsula on a white background.

"We are one," read one of the banners. In the past year tensions reached fever pitch as Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests — including intercontinental ballistic missiles that brought the US mainland into range, and its most powerful nuclear blast to date — while Kim and US President Donald Trump traded personal insults and threats of war.

But the Games have triggered a sudden apparent rapprochement between the two Koreas. For months, the North ignored repeated entreaties from Seoul for it to take part in a "peace Olympics", letting deadlines for registration slip by.

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But in his New Year speech Kim finally expressed a willingness to send a delegation to Pyeongchang, setting a flurry of talks and visits in motion.

The two Koreas in January held their first high-level talks for two years at Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone that splits the peninsula.

Pyongyang agreed to send athletes, cheerleaders, officials and an art troupe to the South, and both sides decided to march together under the unification flag at the opening ceremony, and form a joint women's ice hockey team.

Thursday's arrivals — three cross-country skiers, three alpine skiers, two short-track speed skaters and two figure skaters — will compete for the North.

They followed a dozen North Korean female ice hockey players, who arrived last week and have been training with their Southern counterparts for what will be the first unified team in 27 years. It has been accorded its own three-letter Olympic code, COR.

Foal Eagle

But the joint team has not met universal acclaim in the South, with critics saying that Seoul has made too many concessions to Pyongyang to secure its participation, and has effectively denied some of its own players the chance to compete on the Olympic stage.

At the same time, some say the North is seeking to gain advantage from its participation, and reports say it will mark the anniversary of the founding of its regular military with a major military parade a day before the opening ceremony.

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Earlier this week, Pyongyang unilaterally called off a joint cultural event slated for Sunday at the North's scenic Mount Kumgang, underscoring the fragility of the agreements.

"Pyongyang must stop acting unpredictably and fulfill agreements sincerely," the Seoul-based Korea Herald said in an editorial Thursday. "One cannot erase the impression that the South is trying hard not to pique the North."

And there are doubts about how long the warmth will last after the Games. Seoul and Washington agreed to delay the giant annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve joint military exercises, which always infuriate Pyongyang, but only until the end of the Paralympics in March.

Doping scandal

The Pyeongchang Games suffered none of the controversies over infrastructure delays that have marred previous Olympics, but have struggled with issues of their own.

Until it agreed to take part, the security threat from the North raised fears for athlete safety among some countries, and ticket sales have been slow.

As of Wednesday 799,000 out of 1.18 million tickets available had been sold, or 68 percent, with chief organiser Lee Hee-Beom admitting: "We have many expensive tickets left, so we need some emergency measures to boost ticket sales."

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And hanging over the competition is the vast Russian doping scandal. The IOC banned Russia from Pyeongchang after the McLaren report, which documented a vast Moscow-backed scheme to artificially enhance its athletes' performances in previous Games.

In December 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said clean Russian competitors would be allowed to take part in South Korea under a neutral flag as "Olympic Athletes from Russia".

Those who want to do so are being forced to pass a unique set of anti-doping tests. At first 500 were thought to be potentially eligible, before the number was cut to 389. And Russian Olympics officials said last week that only 169 had been approved.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport on Thursday lifted life bans on 28 Russians accused of doping at Sochi in 2014, in a move that could enable them to compete at Pyeongchang -- but that would ensure that the controversy continued in South Korea.