North-South ties warm at Winter Games, but US maintains cold front

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A ray of light shone and a bell rang on Friday to pronounce the start of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony, which was a vivid spectacle of fire and ice.

All eyes were on the rival Koreas, who marched together under a “Korean Unification” flag, but the thaw did not spread to visiting US officials.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, who smiled as she greeted him in the VIP section of the stadium.

US Vice-President Mike Pence, who sat just a few feet away, didn’t meet the North Korean delegation in the five minutes he attended the event, according to the White House.

“Let the Games begin,” Moon declared after the athletes entered the stadium.

Nearly 3,000 competitors are vying for medals at the Games, including Hong Kong’s sole representative, 16-year-old skier Arabella Ng, who marched into the 35,000-seat arena carrying the Bauhinia flag.

Canada-based Ng will compete in the giant slalom and slalom in the alpine events, the first time Hong Kong has sent an athlete in the discipline after being represented solely by speed skaters at the four previous Winter Olympics.

The Olympics have provided some respite from years of tense relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, though they came the day after the North staged a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shook hands and spoke briefly with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state at a reception before the opening ceremony, according to South Korean officials.

The greeting with Kim Yong-nam was Abe’s first interaction with a member of Kim Jong-un’s government. The Japanese leader has stood by the US in taking a hard line on the isolated nation, pushing for increased pressure and sanctions.

Top officials from both Koreas engaged in small talk after Kim Yo-jong and other officials arrived earlier in the day. The conversation lasted about 20 minutes as they waited to board a bullet train to Pyeongchang.

Kim Yong-nam got some laughs when he said it was “very easy” to distinguish North Koreans from South Koreans. When told they needed to wait for five minutes, he suggested smoking a cigarette. He later hailed the dignity of all Koreans, saying: “We’re well known to be a country of courteous people in the East.”

Kim and the other North Korean officials will meet Moon for lunch at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Saturday, with speculation mounting that she’ll relay a message from her brother or even an invitation to a summit in Pyongyang.

In the afternoon, Pence told reporters that he briefed Moon on planned US sanctions on North Korea and had received the South Korean leader’s backing.

“North Korea has to accept change, they have to abandon their nuclear ambitions,” Pence said.

He also met North Korean defectors and told them: “President Trump has said that the brutal dictatorship of North Korea is little more than a prison state.”

He thanked “these courageous people” for rebutting a nation currently carrying out a “charm offensive”.

Associated Press, Bloomberg, Reuters

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