SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North and South Korea want to field a joint women's hockey team at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and they have relayed their position to the International Olympic Committee, officials in Seoul said Monday.
A joint team at the games in South Korea would require IOC approval. But if realized, it would be the Koreas' first unified Olympic team, leaving a major mark in their sports diplomacy that often mirrors their rocky political ties.
South Korean sports ministry spokesman Hwang Seong Un said the two Koreas have been discussing the make-up of a unified women's hockey team since last year when the North's IOC representative, Chang Ung, visited South Korea along with his country's taekwondo demonstration team.
Hwang said the two Koreas later agreed in principle to form a joint women's hockey team and informed the IOC about that. He said the matter would be discussed Saturday when officials from the two Koreas and the IOC meet at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, according to South Korea's sports ministry.
The two Koreas previously sent a joint team to major international sports events only twice, both in 1991. One event was the world table tennis championships in Chiba, Japan, and the other was soccer's World Youth Championship in Portugal. During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together under a "unification flag" depicting their peninsula during the opening and closing ceremonies of nine international sports events, including the Olympics and Asian Games, but they failed to produce a joint team again.
The latest reconciliation mood flared after North Korea agreed last week to send a delegation of officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and an art troupe to the Winter Olympics in a major reconciliatory gesture after a year of tension over its expanding nuclear program. Critics say the North may aim to divide Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken U.S.-led international pressures and sanctions on the country.
The South Korean government, led by liberal President Moon Jae-in, wants to use the Olympics as a chance to improve its long-strained ties with North Korea and help ease the nuclear standoff. Aside from the joint hockey team, the Moon government also wants to resume a joint march at the Olympics in Pyeongchang.
South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan told lawmakers Monday that the two Koreas would parade under a "unification flag" during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games if they conduct a joint march. He said a joint march also requires an IOC endorsement and that it'll be also discussed during the upcoming IOC meeting.
North Korea is weak in winter sports, and two of its figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, earlier became the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the games before the North missed a confirmation deadline. The International Olympic Committee recently said it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games.
Do said South Korea wants the Olympic hockey team roster to be expanded to embrace North Korean players, rather than a unified squad with an equal representation from both Koreas which would require some South Korean athletes to be eliminated.
Do said South Korea isn't pushing for a joint Korean team in other sports events. South Korean media speculate up to about 10 North Korean athletes could come to Pyeongchang if the IOC gives additional quota to the two figure skaters and six to eight other female hockey players.
North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both held in Seoul, amid Cold War rivalry. One year before the 1988 Games, a South Korean passenger plane exploded, killing all 115 people aboard, and a captured North Korean agent told South Korean investigators that she bombed the jetliner at the order of North Korean leaders who wanted to disrupt the Seoul Olympics.