Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP) – The two Koreas will not march together at Friday’s Winter Paralympics opening ceremony due to a disagreement about whether to include islands disputed with Japan on a united flag, officials said.
Athletes from the North and South staged a joint march at the opening of last month’s Winter Olympics under a neutral “unification flag”, part of an intense rapprochement that also saw Pyongyang send hundreds of cheerleaders and leader Kim Jong Un’s sister to the ceremony.
Seoul responded by sending President Moon Jae-in’s special envoys — including his spy chief — to Pyongyang, where leader Kim told them he was willing to discuss denuclearisation with the US.
The South has since announced plans to hold a historic summit between the North’s leader and Moon. The detente came after tensions had soared last year when Pyongyang dramatically ramped up its weapons programme.
The North is sending two cross-country skiers — Kim Jong Hyon and Ma Yu Chol — to the Winter Paralympics, the first time it has ever sent athletes to the event, and the South’s Yonhap news agency said both countries had initially agreed to march together at the opening ceremony.
But after lengthy negotiations Thursday, the Korea Paralympic Commitee (KPC) said there would be no joint march as the North “cannot accept the fact that it is not allowed to display Dokdo in the unification flag during the Games”.
Dokdo is the name given by South Korea to Seoul-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan, but they are also claimed by Japan, which calls them “Takeshima”.
– Tokyo angered –
Ahead of last month’s Winter Olympics, Japan was angered after a unification flag — which depicts a pale blue sihouette of the peninsula — used at a practice of the Koreas’ combined women’s ice hockey team showed a blue dot indicating the islands.
Seoul agreed to stop using that version of the flag after Tokyo protested.
The KPC said that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had told them it was now impossible change the flag.
“The IPC said it did not want any more controversy over this, so decided to honour each side’s opinion by letting the two countries march separately,” the KPC said.
The committee added the two Koreas had also held talks without the IPC but had not managed to reach agreement.
IPC president Andrew Parsons expressed disappointment but added: “We respect the decision of the two (committees) who decided that marching separately would be better for both parties.”
He added that “having North Korea participate in Pyeongchang 2018 is a great step forward for the Paralympic movement.
“The fact that (the North) will make its Winter Games debut here in South Korea I also believe is hugely significant.”
The North’s athletes may also have not been keen to march alongside a defector.
South Korean ice hockey player Choi Kwang-hyouk was born in the North and lost a leg in a train accident as a child, before later defecting to the South.
North Korea’s offer to discuss denuclearisation has met with a mixed reaction, with China urging the US and Pyongyang to start talks as soon as possible while Japan has warned it could be a ploy to play for time.
Washington’s top diplomat Rex Tillerson said Thursday the United States was “a long way from negotiations”.