SEOUL, South Korea >> Several South Korean skiers headed to North Korea on Wednesday to train with its athletes in a conciliatory gesture the countries planned to mark the Winter Olympics in the South.
The chartered flight carrying a delegation of 45 — including 20 athletes, support staff and journalists — will arrive at North Korea’s Kalma Airport before the skiers head for Masik ski resort, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Wednesday.
The skiers are reserve members of South Korea’s national team and won’t be participating in the Pyeongchang Games that start Feb. 9.
The South Koreans will fly back Thursday accompanied by North Korean alpine and cross-country skiers who have been invited to participate in the Olympics, the ministry said.
South Korea is preparing to host hundreds of North Koreans during the Olympics, including officials, athletes, artists, journalists and a 230-member cheering group. Liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in sees the games as an opportunity to resume meaningful contact with the North following an extended period of tension and diplomatic stalemate over its nuclear weapons and missiles program.
Uncertainties surrounded Wednesday’s trip, which South Korea wasn’t able to confirm until less than two hours before the athletes departed from Yangyang International Airport. South Korea held discussions with the United States until the last minute to ensure the trip wouldn’t violate U.S. sanctions against the North.
Washington agreed to consider the flight an exception to sanctions announced by the Trump administration in September that include banning vessels and aircraft that have visited North Korea from visiting the United States within 180 days, said Seoul’s ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun, who didn’t further elaborate on the talks.
He said the North Korean skiers who travel to the South on Thursday will head to the athletes’ village in Gangneung, a coastal city that will host the skating, hockey and curling competitions during the Olympics.
The North late Monday had scrapped a joint cultural event in the North, citing unspecified negative media reports in the South.
Other conciliatory gestures the Koreas have agreed to hold during the games include a joint march under a “unification” flag during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony and fielding a unified team in women’s ice hockey. A dozen North Korean hockey players have been training since last week with their South Korean teammates led by Canadian coach Sarah Murray.
While many other South Koreans have welcomed the North’s presence at the Olympics, others express unease and view the North’s overture as an attempt to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions against the North while further advancing its nuclear weapons program.
Wednesday’s flight was the first direct South Korean flight to the North since 2015 when South Korean labor unionists flew to Pyongyang for a goodwill soccer match with North Korean workers, the ministry said. The Kalma Airport on North Korea’s eastern coast was the launch site for multiple midrange missile tests in 2016.