Seoul (AFP) – A South Korean delegation crossed into the North on Tuesday to inspect venues for joint Olympic-linked events, even as Pyongyang demanded Seoul apologise for “despicable” protestors who burned Kim Jong-Un’s image, as controversy mounts over the rapprochement.
The two Koreas agreed earlier this month that the North’s athletes would attend February’s Pyeongchang Winter Games in the South, and that they would form a joint women’s ice hockey team and march together at the opening ceremony.
The two nations also agreed Southern skiers would train with their counterparts from the North at its Masikryong ski resort, and for a joint cultural event at the scenic Mt Kumgang north of the border.
There have since been a flurry of preparatory missions, and the Seoul officials — the first to visit the North in nearly two years — are expected to spend three days in the country.
Seoul and the Games organisers have sought to promote Pyeongchang as a “Peace Olympics” to open a door for dialogue with the nuclear-armed North, which has traded threats with the US over the past year.
But President Moon Jae-In’s peace efforts have met a backlash at home, with many accusing him of using athletes for political purposes and making too many concessions to his hostile neighbour.
A group of right-wing activists went as far as setting leader Kim Jong-Un’s image on fire at a rally in Seoul on Monday, along with the North’s national flag, prompting a denunciation by Pyongyang.
They were “human rejects devoid of appearance as human beings”, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country handling inter-Korea affairs said.
“They are a despicable group of gangsters in human form,” it said in a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency, accusing them of committing “a never-to-be-condoned hideous crime”.
Seoul, it said, had to “apologise before the nation” for the provocation, and take prompt measures to prevent a recurrence.
In response to the protests and controversy, South Korea’s presidential office on Tuesday called on the public to welcome all countries participating in the Games.
“The people have to all work together,” presidential spokesman Park Soo-Hyun told reporters. “Let us welcome the guests as dignified hosts.”
The Southern delegation’s visit began a day after a group of Pyongyang officials ended a rare trip to the South to prepare for planned concerts by the North’s artistic troupes during the Games — also a part of the inter-Korea deal.
The trip — led by the leader of the North’s popular Moranbong girlband — was the first time Pyongyang officials had visited the South for four years.
Another team of North Korean officials is also set to arrive in Seoul on Thursday to check logistics for its athletes and other representatives attending the Games.
The isolated, impoverished North is under multiple layers of sanctions imposed for a series of nuclear and missile tests it has conducted in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.