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PyeongChang Olympic organizers happy to see first North Koreans qualify for 2018 Games

Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik became the first North Korean athletes to qualify for the 2018 Olympics. (Matthias Schrader/AP)
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With less than five months to go before the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in PyeongChang, South Korea, it remains unclear whether North Korea will send a delegation. If the nation wants to, it now officially can thanks to the talents of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, who qualified this week to compete in the pair’s figure skating competition after finishing sixth at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany.

Upon hearing the news, PyeongChang organizers expressed their hope that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would allow the duo to compete, in hopes that it might ease tensions between the two nations enough to persuade him to allow North Korean sports fans to attend the Games, as well.

“It widens the room for more talks regarding North Korea’s potential Olympic participation,” Sung Baikyou of PyeongChang’s organizing committee said Saturday (via the Associated Press) in the wake of  Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik’s qualification.

Sung Baikyou added PyeongChang would also welcome “organized [North Korean] cheering groups,” which the country often dispatches during international athletic events.

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North Korea, which has technically been at war with South Korea for more than 70 years, boycotted the last Olympics hosted by South Korea, the 1988 Summer Games held in Seoul. The boycott came after the International Olympic Committee rejected an unofficial bid by North Korea to co-host the 1988 Games.

The run-up to the 2018 Games, however, has gone differently, with North Korea’s Olympic chair, Chang Ung, showing support for the South Korean bid, which briefly toyed with the idea using a North Korean ski resort to host part of the competition.

Ung ultimately dismissed that idea in late June, as well as any notion that North and South Korea might field a unified team, as it’s done on select occasions in the past.

“The Olympics should not be used for a political aim,” he added (via Reuters).

That said, the two countries have shown more cooperation when it comes to sporting events in the recent past. This year alone, South Korea competed in a women’s soccer tournament in North Korea, and North Korea fielded a team at a women’s hockey competition in South Korea. The teams even took photos together, a gesture some saw as indicative of a diplomatic thaw.

As to whether the ice will continue to melt as the Olympics approach in February, the athletes who may become diplomatic symbols had no idea whether they’d be allowed to go.

“It is up to the North Korean Olympic Committee to decide whether [Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik] will participate or not,” the pair’s coach, Kim Hyon Son, said (via the New York Times.)

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