If you're keeping close watch on who's competing at the Olympic Games next month, you can officially add one more country to the list. On Tuesday, Jan. 9, it was confirmed that North Korea is competing in the Winter Olympics this year. The games will be held in PyeongChang, South Korea in February.
Officials from North and South Korea met Tuesday in Panmujom in the demilitarized zone between the two countries to discuss the possibility of the North competing. According to Reuters, North Korea will be sending a delegation that includes athletes, cheerleaders, a performance art team, officials, reporters, and spectators.
So far, The New York Times reports, only a pairs figure skating team from North Korea has qualified to compete, and the group sent on behalf of the North at each Olympics is generally small. (Although North Korea missed a fall deadline from the International Olympics Committee (IOC) that would've allowed the figure skaters to compete, the IOC said they'll be flexible considering North Korean athletes' participation.)
It's a big deal for North Korea to attend the Winter Olympics at all, as it hasn't done so in eight years, per The Times. The country has yet to win a gold medal and has a rocky past with the games; in 1988, North Korea boycotted the Seoul games, and Korean agents planted a bomb on board an airplane in a terrorist attack the year leading up to it that killed 115 people.
The decision to include North Korea in the international competition also represents a turning point in relations between the two countries, which have been tense in recent months as North Korea continues to ratchet up its nuclear program.
On Jan. 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced in his annual New Year's Day address that he would send a team, adding that talks with the South were required to finalize the decision and conditions. Kim added, "Above all, we must ease the acute military tensions between the North and the South ... The North and the South should no longer do anything that would aggravate the situation, and must exert efforts to ease military tensions and create a peaceful environment."
Kim also took the opportunity in that speech to remind the U.S. of its military might. "It's not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office," he said during his speech. "All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike."
This proved a provocation for Trump, who lashed out with a tweeted message of his own: "North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,'" tweeted Trump on Jan. 2. "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"
Per the BBC, the last talks between the two Asian countries were in 2015, and were followed by a breakdown. Tensions have continued to rise since as the nuclear program develops at breakneck pace in the North.
The talk was expected to also touch on the potential to open up negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. But following the 11th-hour talk on Tuesday, North Korea was apparently unhappy with the South's attempt to bring up the nuclear program. Per Reuters, a North Korean negotiator warned against it in his closing remarks. "This is not a matter between North and South Korea, and to bring up this issue would cause negative consequences and risks turning all of today’s good achievement into nothing," said Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.
There had also been speculation and rumors in recent weeks about whether the U.S. would send a team at all if North Korea did, in fact, send its own. But the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) put that rumor to bed.
Trump himself vocalized support for having North Korea present at the Games. "I'd like to see them getting involved in the Olympics and maybe things go from there," the president said to reporters at Camp David on Saturday, according to The Hill. "I'm behind that 100 percent." Referring to the new outreach between the two Koreas, he added, "I would love to see them take it beyond the Olympics. We have a very good relationship with South Korea."
During the Olympics, per The Times, North Korea will likely refrain from performing any nuclear missile launches, providing a sort of window in which the U.S. might be in a position to open talks.
"The first direct talks between North and South Korea in more than two years appear to be paying off," wrote CBS This Morning producer Ryan Kadro. They announced that North Korea will send athletes to the winter Olympics, opening one month from today in South Korea."
The Times reports that the talks on Tuesday also paved the way for reinstating a program between the two nations that allows elderly Koreans who were separated from loved ones following the Korean war to temporarily be reunited. In addition, the countries apparently discussed the possibility of marching under the same flag during the opening and closing ceremonies.