South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed the North Korean leader’s New Year’s Day remarks on sending athletes to the games in February.
“North Korea leader Kim Jong-un expressed a willingness to send athletes to the Pyeongchang Olympics and to hold inter-Korea government talks during his New Year address,” Moon said.
He said he believed Kim's offer was a response to Seoul's proposal to make the Olympics "an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and peace”.
Seoul offered to host high-level talks with officials from the North in the border village of Panmunjom on 9 January to discuss Pyongyang’s possible participation.
“We will expect that South and North Korea are going to sit and see each other and frankly discuss North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, and improvement of the South and North relationship and mutual concerns,” said South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon.
The main venues for the Games in Pyeongchang are about 80 kilometres from the heavily fortified border with North Korea and preparations have been overshadowed by security concerns, not least over Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear and missile capacities.
South Korean officials said talks would be likely to lead to other issues being raised, including Pyongyang’s weapons programme.
“Improving inter-Korean relations is not something that can be done separately from the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue,” said Moon. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to work closely with allied nations and the international community to improve inter-Korean relations and resolve the North Korean nuclear issue simultaneously."
Figure skaters could be invited
Pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik are the only two North Korean athletes to qualify for the Olympics and Pyongyang’s Olympic Committee missed the 30 October deadline to confirm their participation with the International Skating Union.
But the pair could still be invited to compete by the International Olympic Committee and both Seoul and the Games’ organisers are keen for the North to take part.
North Korean athletes have participated at events in the South in the past, recently with the participation of a full team to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, near Seoul.
While Kim’s offer to consider sending a team to Pyeongchang appears to correspond with Moon’s wishes for improved relations, some analysts see the move as a ploy to trouble Seoul’s uneasy relationship with its allies in Washington.
“I’m not sure [Kim] really wants to talks with South Korea, other than trying to drive a wedge between the two allies, South Korea and America,” says Remco Breuker of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
“It’s a not-very-well-disguised attempt to divide and rule and to drive South Korea and the United States even further apart than they are now.”