On Tuesday, Jan. 9, it became official: North Korea will be represented at the Winter Olympics, a decision which was reached after officials from the country held diplomatic talks with its neighbor, and the games' host, South Korea. Now, when the Olympics commence in PyeongChang in February, North Korea will send a "high-level" delegation that will include athletes, cheerleaders, and journalists, among others. While it's not yet known exactly which athletes will be a part of the delegation, all signs point toward North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik.
That's because Ryom and Kim are the only North Korean athletes to have already qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics, but few people may know who they are.
Ryom is currently 18 years old (she's turn 19 on Feb. 2, a week before the Winter Games begin) and has skated with the 25-year-old Kim as a pair for three years, competing all over the world along the way. At the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Japan, held last February, the team won a bronze medal. Over the past summer, they trained together in Montreal.
More importantly though, as it pertains to their eligibility for the PyeongChang Olympics, Ryom and Kim finished third late last September at the Nebelhorn Trophy competition in Oberstdorf, Germany. That particular competition offers Olympic qualification to the top five finishers.
"I felt delight and extremely grateful to our coaches," Ryom said after the third place finish, per The New York Times. "There were many people of different nationalities and backgrounds cheering for us. The fact that we gave them some kind of joy, that was the best part in the performance."
Minutes after the two skaters completed their qualification-clinching performance, however, their coach, Kim Hyon-son, said, "It is up to the North Korean Olympic Committee to decide whether they will participate or not."
When the deadline to submit for participation came last October, however, North Korea failed to confirm that its two most qualified athletes would attend the PyeongChang Olympics. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has long said it is in favor of North Korea playing a part at the games.
"The position of the IOC is very clear," IOC president Thomas Bach told the Associated Press last June. "We have already invited the DPRK (North Korea) to participate in the Winter Games in 2018. We are supporting athletes in order to assist them to qualify for the Olympic Games."
The IOC has not only said it would like to see North Korea at the Winter Olympics, but has also made it clear that it is willing to bend a few rules to make it happen. Before North and South Korean delegates held talks on Tuesday, the committee signaled that it was keeping watch of the discussions and was ready to include North Korea's athletes.
"We welcome the discussion which will take place on Wednesday between the governments of the Republic of [South] Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea," an IOC spokesman said, according to Reuters.
More important than the committee's interest in the two Koreas' discussion was the IOC's decision to extend the deadline for North Korea. The spokesman said, per Reuters:
As far as the participation of athletes from the National Olympic Committee of DPRK in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 is concerned, the IOC has been having discussions with both sides for a long time. In doing so we have kept the door open by extending the deadline for registration, and by offering support to North Korean athletes in the qualification process, whilst always respecting United Nations sanctions.
Now that North Korea has decidied to send a delegation, we can expect Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik to provide the country's best chance at winning a medal.