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North And South Korea Find Common Ground For Pyeongchang Winter Olympics


We have news of a breakthrough in relations between North and South Korea - at least a breakthrough of a sort. The two governments have agreed to terms that will have their respective Olympic teams marching together in next month's opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. NPR's Elise Hu is in Seoul and is on the line. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey, there.

GREENE: So what have they agreed to here?

HU: Well, the two Koreas are going to form their first joint Olympic team. It's going to be the women's ice hockey team that plays in Pyeongchang, which is a South Korean resort city that's going to be hosting the games next month. Their athletes are also going to be marching together during the opening ceremony. That hasn't happened since the year 2000 in Sydney when the two Koreas marched together. So a couple items here hammered out in the third talks in ten days between North and South Korea that has really sort of cooled down some tensions that had really been ratcheting all of last year.

GREENE: Now it's an interesting reminder that there is some precedent for this, at least within the last two decades. This is not, you know, the first time ever. But you say cooling down the tensions. So is it an exaggeration to call this a breakthrough in relations?

HU: The fact that they're talking at all is considered significant considering the two Koreas hadn't. There had been a freeze for two years prior to about last week when the inter-Korean talks began again in earnest in order to make these agreements about the Olympics. But critically, the two Koreas are not talking about security issues - that is this question of North Korea's increasing nuclear and missile capabilities. And so there's no breakthroughs on that front.

But generally, it is seen as something of a positive when the two countries are talking because - and then they're also reopening some hotlines and some ways to communicate because this always helps sort of sort out any miscommunication or misreading of things when things are tense.

GREENE: So it's been so cool that just opening lines of communication and just having a way to avoid some sort of miscommunication leading to something catastrophic - I mean, that is seen as progress. We just don't know how far this is going to go.

HU: That's right. I mean, South Korea has been committed to trying to get to denuclearization eventually but is using this Olympic level of conversation and show of unity as an entree to that. North Korea, on the other hand, says it doesn't want to talk about its nuclear capabilities at all, and that's off the table. So that's going to be the hard part of this relationship. But this is what South Korea considers an opening - a beginning.

GREENE: Do South Koreans - people you talk to in Seoul, on the streets - do they want their athletes to be marching side by side with the North Korean team?

HU: Well, as I mentioned, this isn't the first time.

GREENE: Right.

HU: The two Koreas have done this during the Asian Games previously. The last time the two Koreas have marched together was during the 2007 Asian Games - and then, you know, prior to that, another Olympics event. So the South Koreans are generally happy to see that. Older Koreans that remember the peninsula unified tend to be very supportive of this notion in general. But there are going to be some mixed opinions about this especially when it comes to this hockey team because, here in local media, there's already talk that the South Koreans think it's unfair that suddenly the North Koreans are joining with the South's players that have been training for so long.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, you change a team totally just within such a short period of time before the Olympics. It has to make a difference.

HU: Exactly.

GREENE: NPR's Elise Hu speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Elise, thanks.

HU: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG "AFTER THOUGHTS) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.