The Korea Herald


Ten NK athletes to come to S. Korea via air

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Jan. 31, 2018 - 19:14

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Thirty-two North Koreans, including 10 athletes, will come to South Korea via air on Thursday to prepare for and compete in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the Ministry of Unification announced Wednesday. 

North Korean figure skating duo Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik took bronze at the 2018 Four Continents championships in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 26. (AP-Yonhap) North Korean figure skating duo Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik took bronze at the 2018 Four Continents championships in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 26. (AP-Yonhap)

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

Among the North’s Olympians, three alpine skiers, three cross-country skiers, a figure skating duo and two short-track skaters are expected. They are to stay at Gangneung Olympic Village, in the subhost city of Gangneung, Gangwon Province, throughout the Winter Games period.

The North Koreans will cross the border after joining a 45-member South Korean delegation that embarked on a two-day trip to North Korea at 10:43 a.m. via a chartered flight from Yangyang International Airport, Gangwon Province. 

At 11:54 a.m., the South Korean group landed at Kalma Airport, a military air base situated in North Korea’s Kangwon Province and a 45-minute drive away from the Masikryong Ski Resort, where the training is to be held. Two dozen skiers on the substitute roster for the national team, coaches, support staff and a press pool formed the delegation.

The same plane, provided by South Korea’s Asiana Airlines, will be also used for the return flight.

Although the press corps didn’t elaborate, the figure skaters are likely to be the pairs team of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who won a bronze medal at the 2018 Four Continents competition in Taiwan last week.

North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes who will compete across five sports at the Olympics.

Joint ski training & sanctions

The South Korean delegation’s Wednesday trip to the North 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.
A chartered Asiana Airlines flight carrying a 45-member South Korean delegation leaves for an airfield near North Korea`s Masikryong Ski Resort on Wednesday. (Yonhap) A chartered Asiana Airlines flight carrying a 45-member South Korean delegation leaves for an airfield near North Korea`s Masikryong Ski Resort on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

“There were concerns expressed by the US (and Asiana Airlines), but such concerns (of sanctions violations) 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 the US Congress, 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.

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 takeoff, originally scheduled for 10 a.m., was also delayed for reasons unexplained.

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 Airlines 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.

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 a 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 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. North Korea will compete in both skiing disciplines at the Olympics.

Experts advise the South Korean government to keep a tight line of communication 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 internal 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 Corps (