North Korea decision on Olympics participation seen as last minute: South Korea official

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Organizers of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, expect long-time adversary North Korea to hold off for as long as possible on deciding whether to participate in the Games, South Korea’s top sports official said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings is seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Festival, near the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

“We are very hopeful and expect them (North Korean athletes) to be able to participate in the Games. At the same time, we do know that this may be a very last-minute decision by North Korea,” said South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan at an Olympics preview event in New York.

The Winter Games kick off on Feb. 9 and run through Feb. 25.

The International Olympic Committee is urging North Korea to participate, which could help ease safety and security concerns about the Games arising from Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Organizers have said the Games will be safe.

The mountainous resort town of Pyeongchang is located just 50 miles (80 km) from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the world’s most heavily armed border. The two countries remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended with a truce and not a peace treaty.

“The IOC has expressed their willingness to support North Korea in terms of training costs and other costs related to participating at the Games,” Do said.

North Korea did not have any athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

In late September, North Korea secured qualification for its first athletes at the Pyeongchang Olympics when figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik finished in the top six in a qualifying event in Germany.

“It’s very positive news. It means that they do have athletes who are eligible which is a positive sign for us. In terms of other sports, we are aware that there are North Korean athletes training for cross country (skiing) as well as other ice skating categories,” Do said.

Another reason for Olympic officials’ optimism over possible North Korea attendance in Pyeongchang is that leader Kim Jong Un is a well-known sports fan, and he has spent heavily on sport in connection with his bid to lift living standards in the North.

Still, the previous time South Korea hosted the Olympics, which was the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, boycotted them after a plan to co-host the event fell apart.

As of Tuesday, 43 heads of state and approximately 6,500 athletes from 95 nations and six continents were registered to attend the Games, according to Pyeongchang’s organizing committee.

Reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Tom Brown