North Korea Agrees, Again, to Pre-Olympic Visit to South Korea
South Korea — After keeping South Korea in suspense, an advance team of North Korean officials, including a well-known singer, arrived in the South a day later than scheduled to prepare for cultural performances during the Winter Olympics next month, South Korean officials said on Sunday.
The visit across the land border came hours after the International Olympic Committee approved 22 North Korean athletes to take part in the Games and confirmed that the two countries would march together during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony. The efforts to ensure that North Korea takes part in the Games are part of moves to lessen tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The past year has been marked by aggressive rhetoric not just from Pyongyang, which has drawn criticism for its nuclear and missile tests, but also from Washington, where President Trump has threatened military action to pressure the North.
Pyongyang had initially said it would follow up on its agreement to participate in the Olympics by sending a seven-member team to inspect concert halls where a North Korean arts troupe is scheduled to perform. Seoul agreed to the visit, which was to take place on Saturday, but the North abruptly canceled it without saying why.
Given the lack of an explanation, and the North Korean government’s general opaqueness and unpredictability, there was much speculation in South Korea about what the cancellation meant. Some suggested that the move might even cast doubt on the North’s participation in the Olympics, which will be held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.
Anxious officials pressed North Korea on Saturday to explain why it had canceled the visit. Hours later, they said that the North had agreed to send the team, but that the visit would instead happen on Sunday. South Korea did not say whether Pyongyang had offered an explanation. But the North’s official Korean Central News Agency hinted at the source of its anger by lashing out at conservatives in South Korea who have argued that the North’s Olympic participation could violate United Nations sanctions.
There “are dishonest things seriously chilling the dramatic atmosphere for the north-south reconciliation created by the great magnanimity and the initiative steps taken” by the North, the news agency said, urging the South Korean authorities to address the problem.
In an apparent move to soothe Pyongyang, South Korean officials appealed on Saturday to local news outlets, asking them not to carry speculative articles or dwell too much on controversial aspects of the North’s participation in the Games.
Also on Saturday, the International Olympic Committee announced that 22 North Korean athletes, as well as 24 coaches and 21 media representatives, would be allowed to take part in the Games. The athletes will compete in women’s ice hockey, figure skating, short-track speedskating, cross-country skiing and Alpine skiing. The two countries had already agreed on Wednesday to form the unified hockey team, the first inter-Korean team ever fielded at the Olympics.
The Koreas have also agreed that their delegations will march togetherduring the opening ceremony. The International Olympic Committee said on Saturday that the countries would be led into the main stadium by two athletes carrying a flag symbolizing a unified Korea. When the combined hockey team plays, “Arirang,” a folk song popular on both sides of the border, will play in place of either country’s national anthem.
Ms. Hyon was at the border village of Panmunjom for talks on Monday, when North Korea agreed to send a 140-member arts troupe to the South for concerts in Seoul and Gangneung, an Olympic venue on the east coast, during the Winter Games. Ms. Hyon was widely expected to lead the troupe.
She first gained international attention in 2013, when news reports in South Korea and Japan claimed that she had been executed on Mr. Kim’s orders. But she later appeared in public wearing an army colonel’s insignia and thanking Mr. Kim for his “heavenly trust and warm care” of the Moranbong Band. In October, Ms. Hyon was elected to the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee as an alternate member.
In 2015, Ms. Hyon led the Moranbong Band to Beijing for a performance meant as a gesture of friendship between the two countries’ Communist governments. But just hours before the performance was to begin, the band packed up and returned home.
Neither government has explained what happened. But South Korean intelligence officials have since told lawmakers in Seoul that Ms. Hyon was enraged when the Chinese authorities tried to interfere with her program, which was steeped with propaganda touting Mr. Kim and his leadership.
Relations between North Korea and China have become increasingly strained in recent years, as Mr. Kim has defied not only Washington but also Beijing by accelerating his country’s nuclear and missile tests.