SEOUL — North Korea said Tuesday it would send a large delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, a notable diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries after months of rising tensions over the North's missile and nuclear weapons programs.
South Korean officials said the delegation will consist of athletes, a cheering squad and high-ranking officials. The two Koreas also agreed to hold military talks aimed at easing border tensions and to re-open a key military communications hotline suspended two years ago, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
North Korea said it would not discuss its nuclear weapons program with the South because it was aimed only at the United States.
The announcement was made during the first meeting between the two Koreas in over two years. It was held at the border village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean Peninsula since 1953.
South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae Sung, who relayed the news in a briefing, said Pyongyang would also send performing troupes and a taekwondo demonstration team to the Games, according to South Korean media reports.
South Korea proposed that both sides march in together during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games, which will be held from Feb. 9-25 in Pyeongchang. The last time both countries marched together under the same flag was at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Olympic participation from the North would mark a return to the Winter Games after the reclusive state didn’t participate in the Sochi 2014 Games. North Korea has participated in every Summer Games since 1972, with the exception of the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Games, both of which it boycotted.
North Korea has won one silver and one bronze medal in its Winter Games history.
Pyongyang would likely send figure skating pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik to the Games, who qualified after capturing a bronze medal in February 2017 at the Asian Winter Games in Japan. The International Olympic Committee has also said it would consider wild card entries for North Korean athletes.
IOC president Thomas Bach released a statement Tuesday welcoming the proposals agreed upon between North and South Korea. "These proposals mark a great step forward in the Olympic spirit," Bach said.
The IOC will discuss the number and names of athletes from North Korea.
During Tuesday's talks, Seoul suggested discussing a reunion of families separated by the Korean War, which ended in 1953, around the Lunar New Year's holiday in February, Vice Minister Chun told reporters.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said Seoul may also consider temporarily lifting sanctions against North Korea if it is necessary to enable North Korean officials to attend the Games. Foreign ministry spokesman Noh Kyu Duk said the decision would be considered in close consultation with the U.S. and other relevant countries.
The inter-Korean dialogue is happening at a period of heightened tension on the peninsula, highlighted by several North Korean long-range missile launches over the past year and the isolated country’s sixth nuclear test in September.
The meeting began with warm words from the leader of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon, who is chairman of Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.
“I came here with hopes that the two Koreas hold talks with a sincere and faithful attitude to give precious results to the Korean people who harbor high expectations for this meeting, as the first new year present," he said, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Seoul’s delegation leader, Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon, said that the talks came after a period of long-frayed ties and that just getting started is a step in improving relations.
“Well begun is half done,” he said. “I hope (the two sides) could hold the talks with determination and persistence."
The talks came together after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent an overture in his New Year’s Day address that the Olympics would be a “good occasion” to show the greatness of the Korean people and suggested that Pyongyang was willing to send a delegation to Games.
South Korean President Moon Jae has repeatedly stressed he wants the Pyeongchang Olympics to be a means for re-engagement and conflict resolution with the North.
“I will strive to make the Pyeongchang Olympics the ‘Peace Olympics’ and furthermore to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue so that this can be a year when peace is cultivated on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon told a group of leaders from the Korean Senior Citizens Association at the presidential Blue House on Jan. 5.
President Trump on Saturday expressed hope that the talks would move to issues beyond the Olympics and said that he would be willing to talk with Kim Jong Un, with whom he has engaged in a war of words over the past several months.
However, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday that Trump’s comments didn’t indicate a change in policy.
“There is no turnaround," Haley said. "What he has basically said is, yes, there could be a time where we talk to North Korea, but a lot of things have to happen before that actually takes place.”
The International Olympic Committee said Monday it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the Games.
A State Department adviser told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that while Washington viewed Tuesday’s talks as a good start, it was far too early to know if the discussions would be meaningful beyond the Olympics preparations.
Brian Hook, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said the U.S. would insist on "the complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," according to the Associated Press.