LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A Korean unity deal for the Pyeongchang Olympics will bring 22 North Korean athletes across the border to South Korea, where they will march as one under a unification flag at the opening ceremony and compete together in one sport.
In the most symbolic agreement approved Saturday, 12 North Korean women’s hockey players will join their neighbors in a united roster playing in special uniforms with a Korean song as their anthem.
North Koreans will also compete in figure skating, short track speed skating, Alpine skiing and cross-country skiing after being given exceptional late entries by the International Olympic Committee.
The North Korean delegation will also include 24 coaches and officials, plus 21 media representatives at the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games.
The governments of North and South Korea were offered “sincere thanks” by IOC President Thomas Bach announcing the agreement.
An Olympic deal became possible after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s speech that a team could cross the border to compete.
“Such an agreement would have seemed impossible only a few weeks ago,” said Bach, who did not take questions from international media.
Bach was flanked by Olympic and government officials from both countries at a brief news conference at the Olympic Museum after a 2 1/2-hour meeting at IOC offices nearby.
North Korea’s delegation, including sports minister Kim Il Guk, did not stay to brief media after signing the agreement for the cameras.
South Korea’s sports minister, Do Jong-hwan, said through a translator of the accord: “It is very important for the Korean peninsula.”
When Do was asked if North Korea had given any guarantees not to use the Olympics for political reasons, the translator intervened to say “I don’t think we can take that question.”
There has been skepticism about Kim Jong Un’s offer. Critics believe he may try to leverage the Olympics to weaken U.S.-led international pressure and sanctions toughened due to North Korea’s prolonged program of nuclear tests and missile launches.
Bach said the IOC had talked with Olympic officials from both countries separately since 2014 to see if the Pyenongchang Games could be the catalyst for peace-making.
“This was not an easy journey,” said Bach, who competed in fencing at the Olympics for West Germany when it was divided from its neighbor to the east.
The deal confirmed Saturday built on a breakthrough agreement reached Wednesday at the Korean neighbors’ shared border.
“The Olympic Games show us what the world could look like, if we were all guided by the Olympic spirit of respect and understanding,” Bach said.
The united women’s hockey team will be the first time the two Koreas will have joined together in Olympic events. They will play under the Olympic code of “COR” — the French acronym for Korea — and hear the song “Arirang” as a pre-game anthem.
The roster will include 12 players from the north and 23 from the south. However, to maintain fairness for opponents, only 22 can suit up for each game. At least three must be North Korean, the IOC said.
North Korea will also send: two figure skaters to compete in the pairs competition; two male speed skaters; two men and one women in cross-country skiing distance events; two men and one woman in Alpine skiing’s slalom and giant slalom races.
The 22 athletes will not be expected to win a first Winter Games medal for North Korea since 1992, when it got a bronze in women’s short track speed skating.