North Korea will send a 46-member delegation, including 22 athletes and 24 officials, to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The decision was made at a meeting presided over by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach in Lausanne, Switzerland on January 20. Under the decision, the North will send athletes to compete in figure skating, short track speed skating, cross country skiing and alpine skiing. Also, South and North Korea will form the first-ever joint Olympic team in women’s ice hockey. During the opening ceremony on February 9, the two Koreas will enter the stadium together in the name of “Korea” under the so-called Korean Peninsula flag, which features a blue image of the peninsula on a white background. Expectations are running high that North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Games and the formation of a unified Korean team will contribute to advancing relations between South and North Korea. Here’s Hong Hyun-ik, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

North Korea will send a cheering squad, an art group and even a taekwondo demonstration team as well as athletes to the Olympics to be held in South Korea so the two Koreas will show their reconciliatory efforts to the entire world. Without North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, some might have doubted that South Korea would hold a peaceful and successful Olympics. The doubts are now all dispelled, and South Korea is sure of hosting the event successfully, drawing international attention. Things will hopefully develop in a positive way to lead to the solution of the North Korean nuclear issue and eventually a peaceful unification of Korea. Significantly, North Korea’s participation in the Olympics is considered the first step toward that goal.

The most attention-grabbing part of the Lausanne meeting was the creation of a joint Korean team in women’s ice hockey, for which South Korea will field 23 players and North Korea will add another 12. IOC President Thomas Bach said that this team would be a great symbol of the unifying power of the Olympic sport. The two Koreas will form a single team for the first time in 27 years since 1991 when they did so in table tennis and football. But it will be the first-ever unified Korean team in Olympics history.

The South Korean women’s ice hockey team got a spot in the Olympics as the host nation. As part of efforts to show the Olympic spirit of peace, a joint team between South and North Korea will be formed, with the roster expanding to 35. In consideration of fair play and other competing teams, 22 athletes will be allowed to play in each game. North Korean athletes will soon join the South Korean team to start training with South Korean players under the leadership of the same coach. The process will demonstrate to the world that South and North Korea are working together to promote reconciliation and cooperation and that they will eventually become one again. I think this is greatly meaningful.

On January 21, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said that South Korea shows immense gratitude to the North for extending a helping hand for the Winter Games, which could be recorded as the worst of its kind with low popularity. Analysts are saying North Korea is using its media to claim that the dispatch of its delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics is a gift for the South Korean government.

North Korea, in effect, lost out to South Korea in terms of regime competition, and it is concerned that North Korean citizens may feel frustrated with the prosperity enjoyed by South Korean people and become dissatisfied with the authorities. The North never uses the term “PyeongChang Olympics” but only refers to it as “Winter Olympics.” It is hard to find the word “PyeongChang” in the North Korean media. Outwardly, North Korea is promoting itself as though it is greatly helping South Korea host the Olympics successfully. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s speech that South Korea will host the Olympics this year, while North Korea will commemorate the 70th anniversary of its regime’s establishment on September 9. Marking the important occasion this fall, North Korea seems to be telling the South to resume economic cooperation and lift its sanctions.

The IOC is expected to cover the costs for North Korean athletes who will take part in the Olympics. But some people are wondering if paying the costs related to North Korean musicians and cheerleaders, other than athletes, might violate the U.N. Security Council sanctions against the North.

South Korea will likely use the inter-Korean cooperation fund secured by the Unification Ministry to cover the costs for North Korea’s cheering squad and art troupe, except athletes. The purpose of the U.N. sanctions is to cut off funding for North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction. But the North Korean delegation will come to South Korea to celebrate and participate in the Olympics. Also, South Korea will not give cash to North Korea but pay the relevant costs, such as transportation and accommodation fees, for the delegation staying in South Korea. Given that, I think it is a far stretch to say that hosting the North Korean delegation will violate the international sanctions.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump, who habitually made strong remarks about North Korea, has recently softened his attitude, saying that he supports inter-Korean talks 100 percent and that it is possible to talk to Kim Jong-un over the phone. Attention turns to whether the dialogue mood surrounding the PyeongChang Olympics may lead to talks between North Korea and the U.S.

South Korea is a key ally of the U.S. Trump agreed to send a high-level delegation, including his family and Vice President Mike Pence, to the Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea, while U.S. officials are hoping for South Korea’s successful hosting of the Olympics. But it’s uncertain whether this upbeat mood will contribute to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. The U.S. says that it will discuss the issue after the PyeongChang Olympics and Paralympics. Dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. will unlikely happen anytime soon, since the North is not very sincere about contact with the U.S. for now. Given that U.S. officials, in general, do not officially disclose the process of making contact with North Korea, it is hard to know exactly what’s going on between the two sides. But it is assumed that they may communicate indirectly through a New York channel.

How South and North Korea will act after the Olympics is as important as North Korea’s participation in the Olympics or the formation of a joint team. It is urgent for the Seoul government to come up with an effective strategy to lead the rare inter-Korean dialogue momentum to North Korea-U.S. dialogue and provide a clue to settling peace in the region.

South Korea may attempt to elicit North Korea’s nuclear freeze or moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. It could also persuade the U.S. to ease various preconditions for dialogue with North Korea. While drawing the North and the U.S. to the dialogue table, Seoul should muster support from China and Russia. In doing so, South Korea could ease tension triggered by the South Korea-U.S. annual combined military exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. If the tension is decreased in a peaceful way, inter-Korean relations will improve and North Korea-U.S. dialogue will be possible as well. Then, the Korean Peninsula will surely enter a phase of peace. If there is some progress in discussions on the nuclear issue, it will not be difficult to resume inter-Korean joint programs such as the Gaeseong industrial park project and the Mt. Geumgang tour business. The South Korean government should hammer out a clever scheme to break the nuclear deadlock and display diplomatic skills to induce North Korea and the U.S. to come to the negotiation table.

The PyeongChang Winter Olympics will kick off on February 9. As the Olympics of peace, the event will hopefully pave the way for inter-Korean dialogue and open a new horizon of peace in this part of the world.

[Interview] Defector Starts New Life as Technical Engineer in S. Korea

The person we’re going to introduce today is Choi Gwang-il, supervisor of the Cheongra Office of the Environmental Corporation of Incheon.

I’m working at the Incineration Plant, managing the waste heat boiler. Waste from Incheon City is incinerated at our plant. Heat generated in the process produces steam, which is provided as heating to local residents in South Chungcheong Province. In summer, we produce electricity and sell it to the Korea Electric Power Corporation. I’m doing this job at the local public enterprise in Incheon.

Choi’s hometown is Chongjin in North Korea. He joined the army when he was 17 years old. After serving in the army for 10 years, he returned home, only to find that his parents were dead and their house was sold to someone else. He felt like the sky was falling. After much thought, he went to his relative in a border town and worked there for some time. In 2011, he came to South Korea via China, Laos and Thailand. He was 29 years old.

At first, I worked at construction sites. I served in the army in North Korea for a long time, so the work here wasn’t that difficult. Moreover, I earned a lot of money. While working in various parts of South Korea, including Busan, Ulsan and Jindo Island, I thought that construction skills were highly developed in South Korea and there were so many hardworking people here.

Choi met a number of people at construction sites, and their advice changed his life. They recommended for him to learn some skills while he was young and find a job he would be able to do for the rest of his life. After asking all around, he visited a college focused on technical training.

An official at the student service center asked me what kind of skills I wanted to learn. I said anything would do. The official explained that there were various skills, including those related to electricity, design and automobiles, and that I had to choose one. So I met professors of all 15 departments at Korea Polytechnics. They were all very kind to me, and one of them was particularly warm to me. When I said I came from North Korea, he offered me coffee and snacks and gave me encouraging words, like “You made the right choice. If you work hard, you’ll succeed in life here. You can do it.” I was deeply moved. I decided to study his subject, although I had no idea of what it was. So I entered the Computer-aided Mechanical Design Department.

But it was pretty challenging to study computers and English, as he had never learned those subjects before. During class, it felt like he was in outer space all alone. It was more difficult to attend class for one day than to work at a construction site for ten days. Plus, he could earn money as a construction worker. He wondered why he chose to ask for trouble.

While walking for two hours from Namsan Mountain to the school, I recalled what I had gone through—the moments of escaping from North Korea, getting training at Hanawon and working at construction sites. I asked myself why I chose to study. In North Korea, I always obeyed other people and simply followed their instructions. But here, for the first time in my life, I set a goal and decided to study. I thought I would regret if I gave up. I was determined to endure, at least for one semester, so I would not have regrets when I turn 40 or 50. I made up my mind to try my best.

He read textbooks over and over again. If he still couldn’t understand them, he would ask for help from younger classmates or professors. As time went by, he was able to get the knack of studying, and things got easier. He graduated from school with good grades. His school life was a precious experience to him, and a cross-country trip, in particular, turned out to be a great asset for him.

I came all the way to South Korea to start a new life, but I knew very little about the country. I thought that’s nonsense. After the first semester was over, I worked at a construction site again for a month. With the money I earned, I decided to travel across the country. I hit the road, carrying 3 million won with me. My first destination was Busan. I searched the Internet and asked taxi drivers to find tourist attractions in the city, such as Jagalchi Market and Gwangalli Beach. I traveled all around the country for 20 days. South Korea was far wider than I had expected and people worked really hard. As the last destination, I went to the Unification Observatory in Gangwon Province on the east coast. As the place was close to the inter-Korean border, I looked out over North Korea and thought to myself, ‘I’ll work hard and resettle successfully here so when Korea is unified, I can confidently say I’ve been doing really well.’

After graduation, he was offered jobs at a large company and also at the Environmental Corporation of Incheon. He chose the latter.

In May 2016, I entered the company as a grade-9 technical employee. I worked hard and received a prize at the company. In May last year, I was promoted to grade-8. I might not outperform my peers, but I was determined to catch up with them at least. I didn’t hesitate to ask them questions and continued to study, read books and search the Internet. Now, I can even teach new employees. I help them solve technical problems and adjust to the company well.

At present, Choi is working on a master’s degree at a graduate school to strengthen his expertise. He thinks that the successful resettlement of diligent North Korean newcomers in South Korea would advance the unification of Korea. And he firmly believes that preparing for a post-unified era is an important mission for North Korean defectors, who have experienced both North and South Korea.

When Korea is unified in five or ten years, we, defectors from North Korea, will have a lot of work to do to serve as steppingstones for the integration of Korea. Technical vocational schools like Korea Polytechnics will be set up in the North after unification. Technical engineers like me could teach the skills we learned in South Korea to students there so they will adapt to South Korean skills and culture quickly without undergoing trial and error.