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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 1:00 am

Olympics meeting eases Korea tensions

HYUNG-JIN KIM | Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea – The rival Koreas moved toward easing their bitter animosity Tuesday during rare talks, with North Korea agreeing to take part in next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea. The countries also agreed to hold more discussions on reducing tension along their border and to reopen a military hotline.

The first meeting of its kind between the nations in about two years was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of escalating tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs. Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.

In comments that appeared to back up those critical views, chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon said his country's nuclear weapons are aimed at the United States, not South Korea. He made the comments while complaining about what he called inaccurate South Korean media reports that he said Tuesday's talks dealt with North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

“All our state-of-the-art strategic weapons like atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic rockets are completely targeting the United States. They are not targeting our compatriots” in the South, Ri said, according to media footage from the border village of Panmunjom, where the talks were held.

Despite Ri's comments, the agreements were still seen to be a positive move. Chief South Korean delegate Cho Myoung-gyon described the accords as a “first step toward the development of South-North relations” when he briefed reporters about the meeting.

Ri read what he called a joint statement after the talks, under which the two Koreas agreed to “actively cooperate” in the Olympics to “enhance the prestige of the Korean people.”

He said North Korea will send a delegation to the Feb. 9-25 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

South Korea will provide necessary services to the North Korean delegation, Ri said, adding that the two countries will hold follow-up working-level talks on Olympic cooperation.

“I see North Korea's participation in the Pyeongchang Games will provide us with a chance to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula,” said Cho, whose official title is unification minister.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert welcomed the meeting which she said was “aimed at ensuring a safe, secure and successful” Olympics. The U.S. said it was consulting with South Korean officials to ensure that North Korea's participation in the games does not violate U.N. sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons.

North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics won't affect U.S. participation in the games, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, adding that the decision presents North Korea with an opportunity to see the value of ending its isolation from the rest of the world.