SEOUL: North Korean delegates arrived in Seoul on Sunday on their way to inspect venues and prepare cultural performances for next month’s Winter Olympics, in the first visit by Pyongyang officials to the South for four years.
Television footage showed a group of seven officials led by Hyon Song-wol, the leader of the North’s popular Moranbong band, crossing the heavily-fortified border on a bus before arriving at Seoul train station about an hour later.
The stony-faced officials, surrounded by hundreds of Seoul police officers, then took a train to the eastern city of Gangneung, where one of the planned musical concerts is due to be held.
Hyon wore a dark coat and fur muffler as she boarded the train without talking to throngs of journalists at the station.
The two-day visit is the first by Pyongyang officials to the South since before left-leaning South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who advocates dialogue with the North, took office last May.
The trip comes two weeks after the neighbours agreed to send Pyongyang’s athletes, cheerleaders, artistic troupes and other delegates to the Games, due to begin in the South’s alpine resort of Pyeongchang on February 9.
The International Olympics Committee (IOC) on Saturday endorsed the deal, saying the North would send 22 athletes in sports ranging from figure skating to short-track speed skating.
The two nations also agreed to march together at an opening ceremony under unification flag – a pale blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula – and to form a joint women’s ice hockey team.
Under the cross-border deal, the North’s 140-member orchestra led by Hyon will hold two concerts – one in the capital Seoul and another in Gangneung – during the Olympics.
Seoul will also send skiers to the North’s Masikryong ski resort for joint training with northern skiers and hold a joint cultural event in the scenic Mount Kumgang area north of the border, according to the deal.
The delegation led by Hyon will inspect venues in Gangneung on Sunday and those in the capital Seoul on Monday before returning to the North on the same day.
Seoul and organisers hope that the Games, which they have promoted as the “Peace Olympics,” could ease tensions on the peninsula that surged to new heights in recent months over the North’s nuclear standoff with the US.
The North last year staged a nuclear test and test-fired multiple long-range missiles believed to be capable of reaching the US mainland.
The North’s ruler Kim Jong-un also traded colourful personal insults and threats of war with US President Donald Trump, sparking fears of another conflict on the peninsula once devastated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Moon has tried to use the Winter Games as an opportunity to defuse tension, even asking the US to postpone a scheduled joint military exercise during the event – a request Washington accepted.
Kim, who had remained silent to repeated calls by Seoul to take part in the Olympics, abruptly announced an intention to join in his New Year address.
But the recent moves also irritated many in the South, who accused Seoul of making too many concessions to the hostile, wayward neighbour that regularly issues military threats against the South.
The deal over the unified women’s ice hockey team sparked fury in the South, where critics accused Seoul of robbing some of its own players of the opportunity to compete at the Olympics for the sake of politics.
Tens of thousands have joined online petitions on the presidency’s website urging Moon to scrap the plan.
Even as two Koreas reached deals over the Olympics, the North’s state media accused the dovish Moon of “brown-nosing” the US and threatened to withdraw its offer to join the Olympics in Seoul did not show enough respect.