SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean Olympic officials said they were pleased after a North Korean figure skating pair became the nation's first athletes to qualify for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, hoping it might help improve strained relations between the countries.
North Korea won its first berth to the Pyeongchang Games in February after figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik finished sixth in the pairs event at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany on Friday.
Tension has been rising recently due to North Korea's nuclear test and multiple missile launches that also triggered an escalating war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
South Korea has been hoping North Korea takes part in the Games.
Sung Baikyou of Pyeongchang's organizing committee said Saturday the achievement by North Korean skaters could make it easier to persuade the North to participate.
"It widens the room for more talks regarding North Korea's potential Olympic participation, including inviting its organized cheering groups," which Pyongyang frequently sends to international events to support its athletes, Sung said.
It's still uncertain whether North Korea would allow the skaters to compete in Pyeongchang, a ski resort town just 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the heavily-armed inter-Korean border. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea's capital Seoul and has ignored the South's proposals for dialogue in recent months as it accelerated its nuclear and missile development.
Ryom and Kim had been seen as the country's best chance to qualify for Pyeongchang. Some North Korean short-track speed skaters may also have an outside shot at qualifying in the coming weeks, Sung said. Pyeongchang's organizers and the International Olympic Committee are also discussing granting special entries for North Korean athletes in some sports so that more of them could participate.
The IOC is trying to calm concern about the Pyeongchang Games, but France has said its Olympic team will not travel to South Korea if its safety cannot be guaranteed. IOC President Thomas Bach has expressed hope North Korea will take part.