There will almost certainly be more North Korean cheerleaders than athletes, but the 2018 Winter Olympics will include a delegation from the country that has provoked global anger through its nuclear development program.

Only two North Koreans have formally qualified for the Pyeongchang games in South Korea, a pair of figure skaters who trained in Montreal.

But in rare talks on the border between the two countries Tuesday, North Korea said it would send them to South Korea to compete, along with a high-level delegation, an art troupe, cheerleaders and a Taekwondo demonstration team, an ensemble that suggests Pyongyang wants to show the world a sunny new face.

The breakthrough follows warm New Year’s comments toward South Korea by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the postponement of U.S.-led military drills in the region, long a sticking point for Pyongyang.

“We came to this meeting today with the thought of giving our brethren, who have high hopes for this dialogue, invaluable results as the first present of the year,” said Ri Son Gwon, the chair of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland who led the North Korean delegation.

“We have high expectations that the Olympics turn out to be a peace festival with special guests from the North,” Cho Myoung Gyon, South Korea’s unification minister, said in his opening remarks Tuesday.

Seoul proposed a new reunion meeting between families split by the Korean border imposed more than 60 years ago and urged the resumption of military talks. South Korean officials also discussed the possibility of temporarily easing some sanctions to allow for the Olympic detente.

The talks marked the first official dialogue between the neighbouring countries, who remain technically at war, in more than two years.

North Korea made clear from the start that it was eager to put forward a new image, after dominating headlines for its tests of deadly new weapons and feuding with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Dressed in black western suits, the smiling North Korean side entered a room at Panmunjom, the border village where the Korean armistice was signed in 1953, and made an unusual request: Could the meetings Tuesday be broadcast, live, in both countries?

North Korea maintains rigid control of its own media; the South Korean side declined.

But the request suggested something new out of Pyongyang, the capital of a nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom now engaged in its own version of a charm offensive.

Mr. Ri, the North Korean official, even offered a joke about the cold temperatures outside: “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that inter-Korean relations have been frozen more than the natural weather.”

None of this merry posture was accidental.

“The negotiations strategy for Kim Jong-un and North Korea has been provocation, peace, provocation. We’re now at that peace stage,” said Jasper Kim, director of the Center for Conflict Management at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.

The Olympics, and the world attention they attract, offer a prominent stage for the North Koreans to make a pitch “that they’re a peaceful nation and that all these provocations are actually a function of a country trying to defend the homeland, no different from any other country. That’s its narrative,” Mr. Kim said.

But, he said, “people aren’t buying it,” and North Korean concessions are unlikely to come without strings attached.

“They have every intent to break the international campaign of economic sanctions and political isolation. So they want to get as much material benefit as possible in this process,” said Tong Zhao, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Part of that includes an effort to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, in hopes of eroding the international consensus that has cleared the path for increasingly harsh economic measures against North Korea.

North Korea, for its part, appears ready to offer concessions after a two-year campaign of heavy testing that proved its ability to detonate a hydrogen weapon and fire an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of reaching deep into the United States.

“They have obtained rudimentary nuclear strategic deterrence,” said Mr. Zhao.

“That makes them capable of exercising some self-restraint. The most likely self-restraint that North Korea can offer is to suspend ICBM tests,” he said.

Pyongyang’s list of demands, in exchange, is likely to include resumption of work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a jointly-managed factory zone.

“North Korea is driven by a broader agenda. It’s not just about sports. It’s not just about temporary relaxation of tensions. I think North Korea wants to achieve more,” Mr. Zhao said.

In that sense, North Korea’s Olympics attendance marks “a historic opportunity, a turning point, on the way to resolving North Korea’s nuclear tensions,” said Wang Sheng, who studies North Korea at Liaoning University in northeastern China.

But there is risk, too, in currying expectations of progress. If the U.S. and South Korea resume military exercises after the Olympics, for example, the danger is that Pyongyang sees it as a betrayal rather than a continuation of a longstanding status quo.

The “Olympics is a great chance” to improve relations, Prof. Wang said.

“All sides should see this event as an impetus. If they fail to make good on it and get things done, nuclear tensions will grow far more complicated in the future.”

Asia Correspondent
The Globe and Mail, January 9, 2018