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SEOUL — North and South Korea agreed Wednesday to field a joint women's hockey team at next month's Winter Olympics, and the two countries will march into the opening ceremony under a single flag, South Korea's Ministry of Unification announced.

The agreement came during a third round of talks between the rival Koreas at the border village of Panmunjom, located in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the peninsula.

It is the most striking breakthrough yet in a wave of sports diplomacy that began last week when the two countries sat down for the first time in more than two years to discuss the North's participation in the Winter Games.

Athletes from North and South Korea will march into the opening ceremony under the Unified Korea flag, which features a blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula against a white backdrop. The flag has been used before at international sporting events, including the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

Korean officials are expected to discuss the moves at a meeting with the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, slated for Saturday, according to the Ministry of Unification.

The North will send a delegation, including a 230-member cheering squad and a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team. A 140-member orchestra from the North will also join the delegation, with performances scheduled in Seoul and Gangneung, a city hosting some Winter Games events.

The two countries agreed to hold joint training for ski athletes at a ski resort in North Korea as well as hold a joint cultural event in the isolated nation.

North Korea also plans to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Paralympics, being held in March.

Talks came together after North Korean dictator 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 the Games.

South Korean President Moon Jae In has repeatedly stressed he wants the Olympics in his country to be a means for re-engagement and conflict resolution with the North, calling the Games in Pyeongchang the "Peace Olympics."

While engagement between the two Koreas is at its highest level in years, North Korea has held a hard line on certain issues. The South has been pushing to hold reunions for families separated by the Korean War, which ended in 1953. On Tuesday, however, reports emerged in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper that Pyongyang demanded the return of a dozen North Korean defectors in the South as a condition for any reunions. South Korea is legally bound to refuse.

The North has also pushed for a permanent halt for joint military exercises held by the United States and South Korea, according to North Korean state-run media.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that the situation with North Korea remained at a "tenuous stage" and warned that a military option might result if the country does not show a willingness to discuss denuclearization.

"Look, we see this as an opportunity for the regime to see the value of ending its international isolation by denuclearization," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday. "We still are very much focused and hope that that happens. We hope that this experience gives North Korea and its athletes a small taste of freedom, and that that rubs off, is something that spreads and impacts in these negotiations and in these conversations."

South Korean women's hockey coach Sarah Murray told reporters Tuesday that she thought the proposed joint hockey team would affect team chemistry and create a difficult situation for her players, some of whom would presumably lose playing time to new players.

"It's hard because the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics," she said, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players."

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January 18, 2018
 
 
 

 

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