Amid the mounting threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, rising tensions between strongman Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump and decades of cross-border animosity, the one thing North and South Korean officials can agree on is figure skating.
During a meeting Tuesday at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone – the first such meeting in about two years – North Korean officials agreed to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as the two countries work to improve ties following a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear and missile programs.
But when athletes march into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in early February, North Korea’s delegation could include only two athletes, the figure skating pair of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik. The pair became the only competitors from the country to qualify for the games before the North missed a confirmation deadline in late October set by the International Olympic Committee.
Ryom and Kim have been training in Montreal under the eye of Bruno Marcotte, a skating coach and former World Junior bronze medalist who met the pair at the World Figure Skating Championships last year.
"They approached me and at first they just wanted some advice on what they should do to be a better team," Marcotte told the CBC. "But that led to an off-ice lift class."
During their training in Montreal, the North Korean skaters became friends with a South Korean pair, Alex Kang-chan Kam and Kim Kyu-eun, who were also working with Marcotte.
"As we trained together for two months in Canada, we became close easily because we speak the same language," Kam told the CBC. "We rooted for each other and we said that we should meet in Pyeongchang."
The IOC said Monday it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games. It is unclear, however, if any other athletes from the Hermit Kingdom will be allowed to participate in the upcoming Olympics.
The IOC added, in a statement to Fox News, that it is waiting for the official reports and proposals from the Tuesday meeting, and plans to discuss the possible participation, number and the names of athletes from North Korea, as well as the format of their possible involvement. The IOC has said repeatedly it wants the North Korean athletes to take part in the games and has provided equipment and help with travel to increase the chances of making this happen.
South Korea also proposed a unified team of the two Koreas at the games, with such a team participating at least in women's ice hockey and possibly other events, but North Korea refused in June 2017 because of time constraints.
Pyongyang could still request its quota of athletes be confirmed, in which case the IOC would deliberate on the matter. South Korean officials have given their northern neighbors the chance to decide on participation at any time before the games officially begin.
North Korea is far from a powerhouse in winter sports and has won only two medals in the history of the Winter Olympics: A silver in women’s speed skating at the 1964 games in Innsbruck, Austria, and a bronze in women’s short-track speed skating in 1992 at Albertville, France. North Korean short-track speed skaters and cross-country skiers did not qualify for the 2018 games.
The country, however, has a much better record in the Summer Olympics, where it has won numerous gold medals in sports such as weightlifting, judo and wrestling.
The country has used international sporting events to make its own political statements. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul – and blew up a South Korean airliner that killed 115 in an effort to deter people from attending the games. However, in recent years, especially during thaws in the tensions with the South, the country has been more open to sending athletes abroad to compete.
During the inter-Korean talks on Tuesday, the South proposed that North Korea send a big delegation and march with South Korean athletes during the Feb. 9-25 games' opening and closing ceremonies that take place just 40 miles south of the line that separates the two nations.
Pyongyang officials added that besides the two figure skaters, the country plans to send cheerleaders, journalists and government officials to this year’s Olympic Games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.