International

North Korea to send ceremonial head Kim Yong-nam South

North Korea is to send its highest ranking official for years to the South amid a diplomatic rapprochement sparked by the Winter Olympics.

Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of state, will lead a 22-member delegation to the South beginning on Friday, said the South's Unification Ministry.

The two Koreas' athletes will march under one flag at the opening ceremony.

Their united women's ice hockey team played its first match on Sunday, but lost the friendly against Sweden 1-3.

The unified Korean ice hockey team will get a chance to even the score when they face Sweden again during the Games.

Sunday's outing was the first and only practice match for the newly minted Korean squad.

Kim Yong-nam is the head of the parliament in the North and will be the highest-level official to visit South Korea in four years.

An unnamed official from the South's presidential Blue House told the BBC that they believe this reflected a willingness on the part of North Korea to improve inter-Korean relations, and demonstrated the North's sincerity.

Mr Kim will lead a delegation of three other officials and 18 support staff, the Unification Ministry said.

It did not say whether he would attend the opening ceremony of the Games in Pyeongchang, a county in the mountainous east of South Korea.

If so, it would put him in the company of US Vice President Mike Pence at a point of high tension with Washington over the North's nuclear ambitions.

The North has conducted a series of missile tests designed to demonstrate its nuclear capability.

North Korea's participation in the Olympics, which run from 9 to 25 February, was a sudden turn towards reconciliation.

It came after the hereditary leader Kim Jong-un extended an olive branch to the South in a New Year message, saying he was open to dialogue and could send a team to the Games.

As well as the ice hockey players, North Korean athletes will compete in skiing and figure skating events. It is also sending hundreds of delegates, cheerleaders and performers.

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However, there have already been some bumps in the road to reconciliation.

Earlier this week it emerged that the North had scheduled a large-scale military parade for 8 February, the day before the Winter Olympics commences.

Amid negative headlines, North Korea said no-one had the right to take issue with its plans and promptly cancelled a cultural event it was to hold jointly with the South.

Meanwhile, although Seoul and Washington have agreed to delay the annual big joint military exercises which always enrage the North, they will still go ahead at the end of the Paralympics.

Original Article

BBC

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