With a 140-piece orchestra, 230-strong performance squad and its athletes walking under a unified Korean flag, North Korea will be hoping to grab the limelight at next month’s Winter Olympics.
Its participation, negotiated in landmark talks at the heavily fortified border between the two in little more than a week, has been hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough that could herald peace on the Korean peninsula.
However, others fear that South Korea has fallen for a North Korean charm offensive and warned the international community not to be complacent.
So how could North Korean participation at the Games play out?
Which North Korean athletes are expected to attend?
While the details have yet to be ironed out, it is very likely that figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik will be given a wild card to compete.
The nations have also agreed to form a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team, and North Korea plans to send its 230-member strong “cheer squad” to support its athletes.
North and South Korean skiers will train together at the Masikryong Ski Resort resort in North Korea before the Olympics start – although North Korea skiers aren’t expected to compete.
In addition to the athletes, an art troupe, a 30-strong North Korean Taekwondo demonstration team and a press corp will travel south, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung told reporters in Seoul.
A delegation of 150 North Korean athletes and supporters will attend the Paralympics, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.
How are South Koreans reacting to the North’s participation?
Many South Koreans have welcomed the talks and the perceived reduction in tensions but it’s not been universally welcomed.
South Korea’s women’s ice hockey coach, Canadian national Sarah Murray, told South Korean news agency Yonhap that the inclusion of hockey players in a unified Korean squad would “damage” some of her players.
“It’s hard because the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players,” said Murray.
Previously, South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon have both said that adding North Koreans to the team won’t affect their Southern teammates’ playing time, but with a limited roster – only 22 players – some South Korean players look set to miss their chance to play on one of their sport’s biggest stages, and in front of a home crowd.
How do other countries feel about the North Korean delegation taking part?
Some of Seoul’s allies are voicing concern Pyongyang may be using the talks to buy time to pursue its weapons program.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned of complacency at a summit in Vancouver, Tuesday, where the top diplomats from the United States, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom met to discuss North Korea.
While the US remains cautiously optimistic that the dialogue could eventually provide fertile ground for diplomacy, the US Air Force has deployed six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Guam, adding more firepower to the region.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called on the international community to be clear-eyed about North Korea’s motivations for participating in the talks.
“I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs,” Kono said at the Vancouver meeting. “It’s not the time to ease pressure towards North Korea.”
What does North Korea stand to gain?
Despite allies’ misgivings, Seoul sees this as a win for diplomacy, and it is entirely possible that North Korea’s interest in sending athletes South is similarly motivated.
The thaw in relations, at a time when the world’s attention is also focused on Pyeongchang and the quadrennial sporting feast – dubbed the Peace Games – also gives Pyongyang bragging rights for moving the diplomatic needle.
Indeed, the North has benefited from reaching out. Following a conciliatory New Year’s speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the US and South Korea have agreed to delay joint military drills – annual exercises which invariably draw Pyongyang’s ire.
“For a mere promise of talks, Pyongyang received a delay of … defensive military exercises,” Anthony Ruggiero, a former deputy director of the US Treasury Department and an expert in the use of targeted financial measures for Foundation for Defense of Democracies testimony, said.
“Kim learned in the first few days of 2018 that South Korea is playing from the same playbook, namely a willingness to provide incentives for minimal or delayed North Korean actions.”
If Japan and the US’ warnings are prescient, the North is buying itself some time for further development of its nuclear and missile programs at a time when sanctions are starting to bite.
What needs to happen for North Korea to attend?
On Saturday, the two Koreas will present their plans to the International Olympic Committee, which in theory could still nix the proposals.
“There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne,” a statement released Wednesday said.
However, it has said its mission is “always to ensure the participation of all qualified athletes, beyond all political tensions and divisions.”
To date, North Korea’s National Olympic Committee did not meet an October 30 deadline for the two qualifying figure skaters to compete. This now looks likely to be overturned.
The IOC has previously sanctioned the two countries jointly participating in Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, something that happened during the Sydney Summer Games in 2000.
However, arrangements between the two Koreas which affect competition – such as the joint hockey team – could be more complicated than the ceremonial proposals.
Further inter-Korean talks, to iron out the details, including travel and accommodation for the North Korean party, will also need to be held between now and the February 9 opening ceremony.
Zachary Cohen, Sophie Jeong and James Griffiths contributed to this report