At Korea Talks, Pyongyang Agrees To Send Athletes To Winter Olympics

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 8:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with the tiniest of steps toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. Instead of talking about nuclear weapons, North and South Korea are talking of the Olympics. North Korea will send a delegation to the Winter Games in the South that includes athletes, government leaders, possibly even a cheering squad. That announcement emerged from the first direct talks between the two Koreas in more than two years. South Korea's unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, welcomed this move. He's speaking here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO MYOUNG-GYON: (Through interpreter) As lots of countries, including athletes from North Korea, will participate in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. It will be a successful festival for peace.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elise Hu is covering this story for us, joins us from Seoul.

Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: So what was it like when the negotiators sat down together?

HU: It was a great moment to see because we haven't had the two Koreas come together in about two years now. Only the first part of the dialogue was open to the press, but from what the cameras caught, both - diplomats on both sides were in upbeat moods. They seemed earnest about trying to make a deal at the outset. Now, to get to the meeting, the chief North Korean negotiator had to just walk right over the border in a black suit, no coat.

He was flanked by other North Korean officials, surrounded by a pool of cameras. He continued being trailed by these cameras as he headed into the building where South Korean negotiators were waiting for him. Once they got inside, the two sides were on - both side - or on two sides of a long rectangular table facing each other. And the opening conversation was about the weather.

INSKEEP: Of course, because he left his coat behind, as you pointed out. So it's on his mind, but anyway, go on, go on.

HU: (Laughter) Yeah, the negotiator from the North, Ri, he talked about how inter-Korean relations were more frozen than the typical climate.

INSKEEP: Uh-huh.

HU: ...But that the will of the people is that those relations thaw. So he used a metaphor there at the outset.

INSKEEP: OK, so what did they manage to thaw in the opening hours of these talks?

HU: Well, that main question about the Olympics participation is resolved. North Korea said it will send a delegation to the games in Pyeongchang, which is in South Korea, next month. That is likely to include a figure skating pair that recently qualified. North and South Korea also agreed just recently to reopen another hotline, a military hotline that connects the two countries in the Yellow Sea that had been shut down. So that was other progress that was made in the talks.

INSKEEP: Elise, I know all of this is choreographed. But did anything surprise you so far?

HU: North Korea actually tried to make the meeting more transparent. That was a surprise, I think, to the South Korean side, too. The North Korean negotiator brought up in the opening session the possibility of, hey, maybe we should live broadcast this because there's so much interest in this meeting. South Korean negotiators were calm in their reaction, saying that, hey, that's a reasonable request, but that it would actually prefer to keep things closed since the two sides hadn't met in a long time and they wanted things to go smoothly. Some analysts I spoke with believe the South actually reacted this way because they know the North is quite savvy in playing optics and propaganda.

INSKEEP: Ooh - thought that they might get taken advantage of. Let me just ask, how does all of this peaceful talk and collaboration fit in with this broader dialogue about North Korea's nuclear program, and the presidents of North Korea and the United States talking about their nuclear buttons?

HU: Right. North Korea is extremely practiced in posturing. The American president is also quite effective with his Twitter messages and posturing that's - or what's seen as posturing. Now, the substantive work here on the relationship is being done by South Korea and North Korea. The U.S. isn't a party to these discussions, but to the extent that tensions are dialed down by South Korea's diplomacy work, then they do dial down tensions for everyone, despite all of the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Pyongyang.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul. Elise, thanks very much.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.