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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

North Korea 'likely' to join Winter Olympics

The suggestion by Pyongyang's Olympics representative is the latest sign of a thaw in tensions between the North and South

FILE - In this Feb 12, 2010 file photo, North Korea's Song Chol Ri carries the flag during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Seven months ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics, many in South Korea, including new liberal President Moon Jae-in, hope to use the Games as a venue to promote peace with rival North Korea. To do so, the North’s participation is essential, but an ongoing nuclear tension and a lack of winter sports athletes in North Korea could ruin the attempts at reconciliation. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
FILE - In this Feb 12, 2010 file photo, North Korea's Song Chol Ri carries the flag during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Seven months ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics, many in South Korea, including new liberal President Moon Jae-in, hope to use the Games as a venue to promote peace with rival North Korea. To do so, the North’s participation is essential, but an ongoing nuclear tension and a lack of winter sports athletes in North Korea could ruin the attempts at reconciliation. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

North Korea's Olympics representative said on Saturday that the reclusive nation was "likely to participate" in next month's Winter Games in South Korea, in the latest sign of a thaw in tensions on the peninsula.

The comments by Chang Ung, Pyongyang's representative to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), come a day after the North and South agreed to hold rare talks next week and follow Seoul and Washington's announcement that they would postpone joint military exercises that rile North Korea.

Japan's Kyodo news agency said Mr Chang made the brief comment to reporters during a stopover at Beijing's international airport.

Kyodo said Mr Chang was believed to be travelling to Switzerland, where the IOC is based, quoting unnamed sources as saying the trip may be aimed at meeting the committee to discuss the North's potential participation in the Games at Pyeongchang.

The North has taken part on the Winter Games since 1964, though has only won two medals.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in a new year speech that his country wished success for the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held from February 9 to 25, and would consider sending a delegation. Only two athletes have qualified, however - the figure skating duo Kim Ju-sik, 25, and Ryom Tae-OK, 18.

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Read more:

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Pyongyang reopens cross-border communications with South Korea

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The two Koreas have been separated by the world's most heavily militarised border since the Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953.

Seoul and organisers are keen for the North to take part in the Games to help ease worsening tensions on the Korean peninsula stemming from Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes.

In recent months, North Korea has held multiple missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test — purportedly of a hydrogen bomb — in violation of UN resolutions banning such activity by the isolated nation.

The region has been further rattled by tit-for-tat threats and insults between Mr Kim and US president Donald Trump.

But the new year has witnessed a marked softening of tone.

Seoul has reacted warmly to Mr Kim's Olympic overture and the two Koreas this past week restored a cross-border hotline that had been shut down since 2016 and agreed to hold high-level talks next week — the first since December 2015.

Those talks are expected to focus on matters including Olympics participation.

Also in recent days, the United States and South Korea agreed to delay their joint military exercises until after the Games, apparently to help ease nerves.

The regular joint drills had been criticised by some as adding to regional tensions, with both Beijing and Moscow calling for them to be suspended.

North Korea's young leader has shrugged off multiple sets of new UN Security Council sanctions as his regime drives forward with its weapons programmes, which it says are needed to defend against US aggression.

The latest round of sanctions passed in December bans the supply of nearly 75 per cent of refined oil products to North Korea, puts a cap on crude deliveries and orders all North Korean nationals working abroad to be sent back by the end of 2019.

Sales of all industrial machinery, trucks, iron, steel and other metals to North Korea have been banned, as well as a range of Northern exports.

China, North Korea's longtime ally and most important economic lifeline, said it had begun enforcing the new restrictions on Saturday.

South Korean opposition parties have struck a cautious tone over the latest developments, warning against making concessions to the North to secure its Olympics participation.