North Korea plans to send a 230-member cheering squad to South Korea as part of its delegation to next month's Winter Olympics, Seoul officials said Wednesday, the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures the North has abruptly taken recently following a year of heightened nuclear tension.
North Korea informed South Korea of the size of its Olympic cheering squad when officials from the rivals met at the border for the third time in less than 10 days to discuss how to cooperate in the Olympics.
A flurry of Olympics-related meetings has provided a tentative thaw in long-strained ties between the Koreas. But the North's reluctance to discuss its nuclear weapons program is raising skepticism over how long this mood of reconciliation will last.
During Wednesday's talks, the North also told South Korea that it has a plan to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Paralympics set for March 9-18, Seoul's Unification Ministry said in a statement. A detailed makeup of the North Korean Paralympics delegation will be determined in further talks between the Koreas, it said.
The Koreas also discussed fielding a joint women's hockey team and having their athletes march under a ``unification flag'' depicting the Korean Peninsula, instead of their respective national flags, during the opening ceremony for the Feb. 9-25 Games in Pyeongchang, the ministry statement said.
It said North Korea proposed its Olympic delegation travel to south across the heavily fortified land border. Such a border crossing would be a highly emotional event garnering global attention.
The North has said its delegation would also include high-level officials, journalists, a taekwondo demonstration team and an art troupe along with athletes. On Monday, the two Koreas agreed that a 140-member North Korean art troupe comprising orchestra members, singers and dancers would perform in the South during the Games.
Despite its plans to send big cheering and artistic groups, no North Korean athletes are currently officially qualified to come to Pyeongchang though the Intentional Olympic Committee recently said it has ``kept the door open'' for North Korea to take part in the games.
Some critics say the North may be trying to use the Olympics as a chance to launch what they call "peace offensive" to show it's a normal country despite pursuing nuclear weapons. They also accuse Pyongyang of trying to divide Seoul and Washington to weaken international sanctions and buy time to perfect its nuclear weapons.
The International Olympic Committee is to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the Pyeongchang organizing committee at its headquarters in Switzerland on Saturday.
A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for the Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation. The IOC said recently it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games.
South Korea also wants the IOC to allow the hockey team's 23-player Olympic roster to be expanded so that several North Korean players can be added without removing any of the South Korean players. If a joint hockey squad is realized, it would be the Koreas' first unified team in an Olympics.
There are still worries in South Korea that adding new players less than a month before the Olympics would eventually weaken the team power and deprive South Korean players of due playing time.
"Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long," Sarah Murray, the South Korea women hockey team's head coach, told reporters Tuesday, according to Yonhap news agency. "I think there is damage to our players."