A joint women's hockey team could be the first unified Korean Olympics team ever

The two Koreas took a great stride toward unity when they agreed to consider fielding a joint women's Olympic hockey team. If successful, the unified Korean Olympics team would be monumental in reconciling the alienated sister countries and reducing frontline hostilities. 

South Korea Unification Ministry/AP
The head of South Korean delegation Lee Woo-sung (r.) shakes hands with the head of North Korean delegation Kwon Hook Bong (l.) before their meeting in North Korea on Jan. 15, 2018. Officials met to discuss the North sending an art troupe to the upcoming Games.

North Korea's delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea will include a 140-member art troupe, the two sides agreed Monday, while discussions continue over fielding a joint women's hockey team.

The two Koreas met Monday for the second time in a week as they try to hammer out details for the North's participation in next month's Games, which the South sees as a way to calm tensions caused by Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.

North Korea said the art troupe will comprise 80 orchestra members and 60 members who sing and dance. The North Koreans will perform twice – once in Seoul and the other in the city of Gangneung, where some of the Olympic competitions will be held, according to South Korean delegates who attended the meeting.

Separately, South Korean Sports Ministry spokesman Hwang Seong Un said that the two Koreas have agreed in principle to field a joint women's ice hockey team. The proposal requires International Olympic Committee approval. If realized, it would be the Koreas' first unified Olympic team ever.

Officials from both Koreas are to meet with the International Olympic Committee at its headquarters in Switzerland on Saturday. The two sides agreed Monday to meet again at their border on Wednesday for working-level talks ahead of the IOC meeting.

North Korea last week agreed to send an Olympic delegation and hold military talks aimed at reducing frontline animosities in its first formal talks with South Korea in about two years. The North has said its delegation to the Feb. 9-25 Games in Pyeongchang would include the art troupe along with officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists, and a taekwondo demonstration team.

The reasons for North Korea's softer approach are not clear, though some analysts say the North may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken pressure and sanctions on the country. North Korea carried out nuclear and missile tests last year that triggered harsher United Nations sanctions and worldwide condemnation.

Others speculate the North wants to use the Olympics to show it's a normal country despite possessing nuclear weapons.

North Korea has insisted its talks with South Korea won't deal with its nuclear and missile programs, saying those weapons primarily target the United States. Critics question how long the warmer mood can last without any serious discussion on the North's nuclear disarmament.

The North issued a veiled threat Sunday that it could cancel its plans to send an Olympic delegation to protest what it called South Korea's "sordid acts" that chilled the prospect for inter-Korean reconciliation.

"They should know that [the] train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. "The South Korean authorities had better ponder over what unfavorable results may be entailed by their impolite behavior."

KCNA criticized remarks by South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week that credited President Trump for getting the North to sit down with the South. It also accused Seoul of letting Washington deploy strategic assets like an aircraft carrier near the Korean Peninsula on the occasion of the Olympics. The US is beefing up its presence around the peninsula in what it describes as routine training and scheduled upgrades.

The warning is relatively milder than the North's typical fiery, bellicose rhetoric and it didn't appear to put the recent signs of warming Korean ties in imminent danger.

The North Korean art troupe being sent South is to play folk songs and other classic masterpieces that are well-known to both Koreas and can go with the theme of unification, chief South Korean delegate Lee Woo-sung said. He said more discussions are expected to work out details of North Korean performances.

The art troupe would be larger than the previous six that North Korea has sent to South Korea since 1985. The North last sent such a group in 2002, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

A joint statement after Monday's meeting didn't mention North Korea's well-known Moranbong Band, an all-female ensemble hand-picked by the North's leader Kim Jong Un.

One of the North Korean delegates to the talks was Hyon Song Wol, the head of the band, fueling speculation that North Korea might send the band.

Since its first stage debut in 2012, the band is hugely popular at home and has been dubbed by outsiders as "North Korea's only girl group" for its Western-style performances featuring women in mini-skirts and high heels dancing and singing odes to Mr. Kim.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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