North Korea’s offer to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, which are to begin in February in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang, represented a breakthrough for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, a dogged champion of dialogue and reconciliation with the North.
Mr. Moon has repeatedly urged North Korea to join the Pyeongchang Olympics, hoping it would ease the military tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Moon said that the North’s participation would compel the two Koreas to open talks, which he hoped would lead to broader negotiations, involving Washington and others, for the North’s denuclearization.
After ignoring Mr. Moon for months, calling his South Korean government an American stooge, Mr. Kim used his New Year’s speech on Monday to embrace the South Korean leader’s overture.
“I appreciate and welcome the North’s positive response to our proposal that the Pyeongchang Olympics should be used as a turning point in improving South-North relations and promoting peace,” Mr. Moon said early Tuesday, instructing his cabinet to move swiftly to open dialogue with North Korea.
With barely 40 days before the Olympics, the two Koreas must swiftly sort out logistics and other details for North Korean athletes if they are allowed to participate, officials said.
South Korea has proposed that the North Korean athletes travel through the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily fortified border, a route that would be rich in symbolism. It also wants to discuss the possibility of the two Korean delegations marching together in the Games’ opening ceremony. It also wants to know whether the North plans to send a cheering squad.
If the North participates in the Games and the two Koreas march together, it would be a milestone in inter-Korean relations.
Strong ethnic nationalism compels people in one Korea to cheer for the other in competition with any other country, especially Japan, which once ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony. The potential implications of millions of Koreans cheering together could be huge — a prospect that could further advance Mr. Moon’s policy of promoting dialogue and exchanges with the North and creating a thaw after years of tensions spurred by the North’s nuclear and missile tests.
In 2000, the year the two countries held their historic first summit meeting, their delegations marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They again marched together at the 2004 Athens Olympics, using the single name “Korea” and carrying a “Korea is one” flag. But they competed separately in 2000 and 2004.
North Korea also sent squads to cheer for its athletes in international events in South Korea in 2002, 2003 and 2005.
But such scenes came to an end after the conservatives took power in the South in 2008 and instituted tougher measures against the North’s nuclear weapons development.
In June, Mr. Moon, whose election in May ended the years of conservative rule, said he hoped to see the national teams of the two Koreas march together again in Pyeongchang.
But the coming talks with North Korea over its Olympic participation could be a testing ground for Mr. Kim’s intentions.
While proposing to send an Olympic delegation, Mr. Kim on Monday said South Korea should end its regular joint military exercises with the United States and stop letting the Americans bring bombers and other nuclear-capable military assets into the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Moon has suggested that South Korea and the United States could postpone their joint military drills until after the Olympics.
Mr. Kim also demanded that South Korea stop joining the American-led campaign to squeeze North Korea with sanctions. Instead, he said the South should work together with the North to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, while boasting that his nuclear weapons would prevent the Americans from starting a new war in Korea.
Analysts said Mr. Kim was using the North’s Olympic participation to try to drive a wedge in the alliance between South Korea and the United States and between Mr. Moon and President Trump. Mr. Trump has voiced a much tougher stance against the North, focusing on pressure and sanctions and once dismissing Mr. Moon’s efforts for dialogue with the North as “appeasement.”
Faced with increasingly harsh sanctions and desperate to rejuvenate his country’s economy, Mr. Kim was seeking an “exit” from his predicament by cultivating ties with South Korea, the South’s Unification Ministry said in an analysis of Mr. Kim’s speech.
Mr. Cho said on Tuesday that the South was closely consulting with Washington on its dealings with the North.