- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

MACAO — North and South Korea have agreed in principle to form a unified team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and next year’s Asian Games, and now all that remains is to work out the details.

The nations — bitter rivals for half a century — issued a joint, three-paragraph statement yesterday declaring their intention to field one team. The statement came after a three-hour meeting between North and South Korean Olympic officials in the Chinese territory of Macao, where their teams were competing in the East Asian Games.

Kim Sang-woo, secretary-general of the Korean Olympic Committee, said there was a spirit of cooperation.

“The atmosphere and the building in confidence and trust have been taken to a significant level, and that is why the North feels it can trust the South to provide a very fair and acceptable agreement, which is the same case for South Korea, as well,” said Mr. Kim, a South Korean.

Another South Korean Olympic Committee spokesman, Baek Sung-il, said the two sides “had discussed a single team since we made joint marches in international events six times. As our exchange in South and North Korea has been progressing, the mood was ripe for reaching an agreement.”

Athletes from the two Koreas participated together in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and at the 2002 Asian Games, marching under a blue flag that featured a blue map of the entire Korean Peninsula. But the teams competed separately, using their own flags.

The two sides long have talked about combining sports forces, but their statement marked a formal step toward that goal. Neither side signed yesterday’s document, however, and previous talk about merging the teams faded amid deep mutual distrust.

But Mr. Kim said there was optimism that merging the teams would be possible because of a thawing in relations since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in an unprecedented summit in 2000.

Mr. Kim said the two sides agreed to meet on Dec. 7 in the North’s border city of Kaesong to talk about the selection and training of athletes. Each side will be represented by a vice chairman of its national Olympic committee.

North Korea initiated yesterday’s meeting, Mr. Kim said.

The two sides previously discussed combining their teams for the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, and the Beijing Olympic Games during a meeting in September in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.

The two Koreas have been divided since 1945, and their relations have been venomous since they fought a merciless three-year war in the 1950s. For decades, South Koreans could be jailed for even suggesting that better relations with the North were desirable.

Many families still have relatives on the opposite side of the border, however, and there is a deep-seated yearning among most Koreans for eventual reunification.

Recent South Korean governments have moved toward rapprochement, and the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun has moved aggressively to improve relations since coming to office in 2003.

Despite his nation’s reliance on the United States for protection from a North Korean attack, Mr. Roh has, on occasion, risked angering Washington by making political concessions to the North.

In August, his government broke openly with the U.S. position in six-nation talks with Pyongyang by endorsing the North’s right to have a peaceful nuclear-energy program — something the Bush administration has not been willing to concede.

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