The Korea Herald

지나쌤

S. Korean skiers arrive in NK for joint practice

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Jan. 31, 2018 - 17:19

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The two Koreas’ joint ski training kicked off Wednesday, amid brewing controversy over a possible violation of sanctions on North Korea. 

South Korean skiers wave on a plane bound for North Korea on Wednesday. They are to participate in a joint ski training at the North’s Masikryong Ski Resort. (Joint Press Corps.-Yonhap) South Korean skiers wave on a plane bound for North Korea on Wednesday. They are to participate in a joint ski training at the North’s Masikryong Ski Resort. (Joint Press Corps.-Yonhap)

A 45-member South Korean delegation embarked on a two-day trip to North Korea at 10:43 a.m. via a chartered flight from Yangyang International Airport, Gangwon Province, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry. Among the delegation were two dozen skiers on the substitute roster for the national team, coaches, supporting staff and pool reporters.

At 11:54 a.m., they landed in Karma Airport, a military airbase situated in the North Korean side of Gangwon Province and a 45-minute drive away from the Masikryong Ski Resort.  

The trip, however, got off to a rocky start as the Seoul government had difficulties convincing the United States of its flight plan. The trip was confirmed only an hour ahead of the delegation’s departure.

“There were concerns expressed by the US and (Asiana Airline), but such concerns (of sanctions violation) have been resolved and the relevant negotiations have been completed,” Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman for the Ministry of Unification, said at a press briefing.

Baik also reiterated that Seoul and Washington were on the same page in bringing about a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear issue.

In his first State of the Union address before Congress, US President Donald Trump on Wednesday renewed vows to ramp up pressure against North Korea, saying that sanctions are aimed at preventing Pyongyang’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles,” which could “very soon threaten” the US.

South Korean air carrier Asiana Airlines operated the chartered flight despite servicing routes to the US, which could therefore make it subject to a penalty for violating sanctions imposed on North Korea.

The take-off, originally scheduled at 10 a.m., was also delayed for reasons unexplained.

US President Donald Trump last year announced a set of sanctions that includes banning vessels and aircraft that have visited the communist nation from entering the US within 180 days.

Seoul asked Washington to exempt Wednesday’s flight from the restrictions and the matter was “smoothly settled” after consulting with the US Treasury Department, the South’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Although Asiana Airline was not directly mentioned in the statement, the ministry gave reassurances that the US sanctions would not negatively affect “the South Korean corporation” involved in the matter.

The same aircraft will be used to carry North Korean skiers to the Winter Games on its return flight.

Critics also raised concerns about using the North’s luxury ski resort as venue for the event. According to media reports, Pyongyang used loopholes in the United Nations sanctions to bring in European-made snowmobiles and equipment to Masikryong Ski Resort.

Noting the tense atmosphere surrounding the event, Lee Joo-tae, director-general for inter-Korean exchange and cooperation at the ministry and delegation member, told a press pool at Yangyang Airport, that Seoul would listen to the concerns of the South Korean people and closely cooperate with neighboring countries.

He added that inter-Korean relations have arrived at a “very important” stage, while underlining mutual respect between the divided Koreas, including faithful implementation of bilateral agreements.

On Wednesday, the athletes were expected to warm-up and enjoy some free time on the slopes, while officials inspected the venue, according to an itinerary released by Seoul. A friendly competition and joint practices involving cross-country and alpine skiing are to take place Thursday, before the South Korean delegation returns to Yangyang Airport at around 5:15 p.m.

Experts advise the South Korean government to keep a tight communication line with the US.

“The US wants to bring North Korea to denuclearization through its policy of maximum pressure, but South Korea may be giving off a vibe that it’s solely focused on improving inter-Korean ties through the PyeongChang Olympics,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

“This may concern the US as it could weaken the South Korea-US ties for the time being.”

The trip follows North Korea’s abrupt notification to Seoul on Monday that it would cancel a joint cultural event at Kumgangsan, which had been scheduled for Feb. 4, citing South Korean news coverage that “took issue” with its “internal event.”

Analysts here are speculating that the event mentioned is the North’s military parade, which it has decided to hold on the eve of the opening of the Olympics. North Korea has showcased its ballistic missiles on previous occasions.

By Jung Min-kyung & Joint Press Corp. (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)