Seoul (AFP) – A dozen North Korean female ice hockey players entered the South Thursday to form a unified team — the Koreas’ first for nearly three decades — at next month’s Winter Olympics.
The Pyeongchang Winter Games have triggered an apparent rapprochement on the divided peninsula, where tensions have been high over the nuclear-armed North’s weapons ambitions.
But the unified team has provoked controversy in the South, with accusations that Seoul is depriving some of its own players of the chance to compete at the Olympics for political purposes.
Wearing padded team tracksuits against the cold — emblazoned “DPR Korea”, the North’s official name — the 12 skaters crossed the land border near Kaesong, before setting off in a convoy for the South’s national ice hockey facility at Jincheon to start training with their new teammates.
They accompanied a sports delegation from Pyongyang who will prepare for the arrival of its other athletes for next month’s Games, Seoul’s unification ministry said.
The North is contributing 12 players to the unified ice hockey squad, in addition to the original 23 South Korean skaters, the two Koreas and the International Olympic Committee agreed at the weekend.
Concerns have been expressed in the South that the sudden addition of so many players so close to the competition — for which South Korea qualified as hosts, rather than on merit — will disrupt team chemistry.
Public anger has also been fanned by senior Seoul officials who sought to justify the decision on the grounds that the female team had no real medal chances anyway.
The row has taken a toll on the popularity of dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-In, whose latest job approval ratings dived to 60 percent — the lowest since he took office last May.
The RealMeter survey blamed the controversy over the joint team and public perception that Moon’s administration made too many concessions to the North to secure its participation at the Olympics.
– ‘All Koreans’ –
The joint female ice hockey team is scheduled to have a warm-up match with Sweden in the western city of Incheon on February 4.
Pyongyang — which boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul — will have another 10 athletes taking part in the Winter Games: three cross-country skiers, three alpine skiers, two short-track speed skaters and two figure skaters.
The figure skating pair, Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik, are the only North Korean athletes to have met the Winter Olympics qualifying standards.
The latest flurry of inter-Korea activities came after the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un announced his willingness to take part in the Games in his New Year speech, after months of silence from Pyongyang in the face of repeated calls from the South to join in a “peace Olympics”.
Pyongyang issued a rare statement to “all Koreans” on Thursday to rally support for Korean reunification — the longed-for goal it sought to achieve by force when it invaded in 1950.
“Let us wage an energetic drive to defuse the acute military tension and create a peaceful climate on the Korean Peninsula!” said the statement carried by state-run KCNA, urging efforts to “remove mutual misunderstanding and distrust” by expanding civilian contact and exchanges.
Any civilian contact is banned between two Koreas, which technically remain at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
The moves by Kim are seen as aimed at easing tension on the peninsula, where fears of renewed conflict grew last year after the North staged a series of nuclear and missile tests, earning itself new layers of UN Security Council sanctions, and Kim traded threats of war with US President Donald Trump.
Moon, who advocates engagement with Pyongyang, sought the North’s participation in the Games in a bid to eventually open a door for talks for nuclear disarmament.
His office said that bringing the North to the event was an “investment for future” and quelled concerns among many nations over whether it was safe to send athletes to the flashpoint peninsula.
But many analysts question whether momentum for peace will be sustained once the Olympics are over, given the North has already proclaimed itself a nuclear state in defiance of international condemnation.