PYEONGCHANG (AFP) – North Korean athletes and delegates arrived in the South yesterday to take part in the Winter Paralympics, as part of an Olympics-driven detente between the two neighbours.
Two competitors – both of them taking part in cross-country skiing – along with four observer athletes and 18 officials crossed the land border north of Seoul before heading for the venues.
Their journey came a day after Seoul announced plans to hold a historic summit between the North’s leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in – the latest fruit of their Olympics-fuelled diplomacy.
Moon sought to use the February 9-25 Pyeongchang Winter Games to try to broker dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in a bid to ease the nuclear standoff between them.
The North mounted a charm offensive by sending hundreds of cheerleaders and Kim’s sister to the opening ceremony of the Games, during which athletes from the two Koreas marched together under a neutral “unification flag”.
Seoul responded by sending Moon’s special envoys – including his spy chief – to Pyongyang this week, where leader Kim told them he was willing to discuss denuclearisation with the US.
The North Korean athletes – Kim Jong Hyon and Ma Yu Chol – may march with their counterparts from the South during tomorrow’s opening ceremony for the Paralympics, which run until March 18.
The pair made their international debuts in a tournament in January in Oberried, Germany.
It is the first time the North, which has often faced criticism for its cruel treatment of disabled people, has taken part in the Winter Paralympics.
Pyongyang had previously sent athletes to the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London and the 2016 edition of the games in Rio.
Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), said the athletes had been given “bipartite” slots for the games, meaning they had not been able to meet the full qualification criteria.
“They have bipartite invitations from us due to their circumstances. They have not been travelling around the world and have not been able to take part in all the qualifying events,” he told AFP.