A North Korean delegation arrived in South Korea on Sunday to inspect facilities a day after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had given the green light for 22 Northern athletes, 20 of whom had not qualified for the Games, to participate in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympiad.
The moves are part of a flurry of activity that has followed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s conciliatory New Year’s Day message towards the South. While these nascent moves toward inter-Korean reconciliation have been lauded globally for reducing tensions ahead of the Winter Games, a majority of South Koreas are not in favor of a joint team, one local poll shows.
A separate Gallup survey indicates South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s popularity has slipped to a four-month low amid the warming trend.
According to South Korean broadcaster YTN, a seven-person North Korea performing arts delegation arrived in Seoul on Sunday and was immediately whisked to Gangwon Province, in the country’s east, by train. The Winter Games will take place in Gangwon’s Pyeongchang County, while a wide range of collateral activities will be staged across the province.
It is the first North Korean delegation to visit the South during the Moon administration, which took power last May. Recent inter-Korean talks have taken place at Panmunjeom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The delegation will spend two days inspecting facilities in Gangwon’s Gangneung, a coastal city on the Sea of Japan.
The delegation had been expected on Saturday but were a no-show, sparking a frenzy of speculation in the South and on social media over the reason for the apparent cancellation. A recently reconnected cross-border hotline was used to reschedule the visit for Sunday.
The delegation included Hyon Song-wol, who heads North Korea’s famous Morangbong Band, a patriotic troupe which sings jaunty, electronic songs with heavy regime messaging. There had been hopes among some in the South that the Morangbong Band – sometimes called “North Korea’s Spice Girls” – would visit. The North is, however, sending an orchestra, performers and a Taekwondo demonstration squad.
The day prior, IOC President Thomas Bach met North Korea’s Sports Minister Kim Il-guk and South Korea’s Culture and Sports Minister Do Jong-whan in Lausanne, Switzerland. “The Winter Olympic Games Pyeongchang 2018 are hopefully opening the door for a brighter future on the Korean peninsula,” Bach said, according to agencies.
North Korea had failed to register for the Olympiad, and only two athletes qualified – a figure-skating duo who have trained in Canada – but the IOC made an “exceptional decision,” Bach said. As a result, North Korea will send 22 athletes and 24 officials to the event.
The athletes will compete in figure skating, short-track skating, cross-country skiing and alpine skiing, and will form a joint women’s ice hockey team with South Korea. Athletes from the two Koreas will march under a joint flag.
But the decision on the joint hockey team has been controversial in South Korea, with the team’s Canadian coach Sarah Murray complaining in widely reported comments that the decision had come too late to effectively integrate new players. The South Korea team is ranked 22nd in the world; the North Korean team is ranked 24th.
Under the IOC agreement, the squad will add 12 North Korean players to the 23 South Korean members. Sports Minister Do said he hoped the North Koreans would travel to the South “as soon as possible” to prepare, Yonhap News Agency reported. The team’s first match, against Switzerland, is on February 10.
Still, a majority of South Koreans are not happy about the decision on the joint hockey team, which had been suggested by high-level officials including Do. RealMeter, a local pollster, found last Thursday that only four out of ten Koreans back the joint hockey team.
“We are turning the Pyeongchang Olympics that we’ve got into the Pyongyang Olympics,” conservative opposition leader Hong Joon-pyo seethed last week.
And while all stars appear to be aligning for President Moon – whose patience in consistently asking for dialogue with Pyongyang amid nuclear and missile tensions was finally rewarded on January 1, and whose lead on the issue has been followed by US President Donald Trump – his approval ratings dropped six points to a four-month low on January 19, a Gallup Poll found.
Even so, at 67%, his ratings remain robust and the conservative opposition is still in disarray following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye last March.