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Volume 6 No. 264
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North Korea To Send 22 Athletes To PyeongChang 2018 Games

South Korea's most popular sports are still well short of a sellout.

The IOC announced North Korea will send 22 athletes to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games next month and "compete in three sports and five disciplines," according to Brian Homewood of REUTERS. North Korea’s planned involvement in PyeongChang is "viewed as a sign of easing tensions" over its nuclear and missile program. The IOC said that the North will send 24 officials and 21 media representatives. It said that the united Korean delegation would be led into the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony "under the Korean Unification Flag which would be carried by two athletes, one from each country." The North Korean athletes "will be handed quota places, a rarely-used form of wild card," to allow them to compete in ice skating, skiing and ice hockey (REUTERS, 1/20). The BBC reported the "Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration" ruled that a unified women's ice hockey team will be composed of 12 players and one official from North Korea added to the existing South Korea squad of 23 players. The South Korean head coach will take charge but at least three players from North Korea must be selected in the team (BBC, 1/20).

NORTHERN INSPECTORS: The BBC also reported a North Korean delegation arrived in South Korea "for a landmark visit to inspect cultural venues for next month's Winter Olympics." It is headed by Hyon Song-wol, leader of the "popular" Moranbong girl band and a "big celebrity in the secretive state." Local media showed the North Korean delegation "crossing the heavily-fortified border on a bus" before arriving in Seoul. Hyon and her 10-member Moranbong band are the "glamorous face" of North Korea -- and have been described as "Pyongyang's answer to the Spice Girls" (BBC, 1/21). In N.Y., Choe Sang-hun reported Pyongyang initially said that it would "follow up on its agreement to participate in the Olymipcs by sending a seven-member team to inspect concert halls where a North Korean art troupe is scheduled to perform." Seoul agreed to the visit, which was to take place on Saturday, but the North "abruptly canceled it without saying why." Given the lack of an explanation and the North Korean government’s "general opaqueness and unpredictability," there was "much speculation in South Korea about what the cancellation meant." Anxious officials pressed North Korea on Saturday to "explain why it had canceled the visit." Hours later, they said that the North agreed to send the team, but that the visit "would instead happen on Sunday." South Korea "did not say whether Pyongyang had offered an explanation (N.Y. TIMES, 1/20).

NO DEFECTORS: USA TODAY's Jim Michaels reported South Korea "normally encourages North Koreans to defect," but not at the PyeongChang Games. Both countries "want to avoid a confrontation at such a sensitive time with the whole world watching." U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Int'l Studies Assistant Dir Jenny Town said, "That would be a diplomatic incident that would work in no one's favor." A defection would be a "major embarrassment" for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a "major blow" to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has "made peace overtures to the North a central policy." Town said that neither side "has much to worry about because the danger of anyone defecting from the delegation is low." She added, "The people who are chosen to go are very loyal to the regime. There will be lots of security" (USA TODAY, 1/21). REUTERS' Heekyong Yang reported Moon's approval rating has "fallen to a four-month low," a poll showed Friday, after a "public backlash" over a decision for South and North Korea to field a joint ice hockey team. His approval rating dropped to 67%, Gallup Korea said in a press release, down from last week's 73% and the "second-lowest ever," after the rating stood at 65% in late September last year (REUTERS, 1/18).

DOPING SAFEGUARD: The IOC announced more than 14,000 doping tests have been undertaken on over 6,000 athletes from 61 countries to safeguard the upcoming Winter Games. The tests represent a 70% increase on the number of tests for winter sports athletes from exactly the same period in '16 and reflect a collective effort to optimize the protection of clean athletes ahead of PyeongChang 2018. With extra scrutiny on Russian athletes, November and December saw testing on double the number of athletes from Russia than any other country (IOC).