North Korea will send a cheering squad to the Asian Games in South Korea in September, it said Monday.
The state-run [North] Korean Central News Agency quoted a statement saying that the regime decided to send the squad to "help normalize inter-Korean relations and bring about a turnaround for national reconciliation and unity."
Seoul offered support. "We're going to make preparations necessary for the participation of North Korean athletes and cheerleaders in consultation with the steering committee and according to international customs," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters.
Although North Korea did not specify how many people it would send, sources reckon with around 100.
A government official said, "We need to discuss specifics, like how they are going to get here, how long they are staying and cost sharing once North Korea requests them."
But the government does not think it is feasible to field a unified team with North Korea given the time constraints. "We need to consider the state of inter-Korean relations before deciding whether to march together at the opening and closing ceremonies or to form a joint cheering squad," the official added.
This will be the fourth time the North has sent a cheering squad to a sporting event in the South. The first was for the Asian Games in Busan in September 2002, when 280 North Korean women came aboard a cruise ship to cheer their athletes. In August 2003, a 300-member cheering squad came for the Summer Universiade in Daegu. And North Korea's first lady Ri Sol-ju was among 100 cheerleaders who came for the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
In the past, the government here paid for the entire trip. The bill came to W1.3 billion (US$1=W1,011) for the Busan Asian Games in 2002, W890 million for the Daegu Universiade and W150 million for the Asian Athletics Championships.
A government official said, "No decision has been made about who will pick up the tab this time, so we can't offer to do it first."
Kim Kyung-sung at the Inter-Korean Sports Exchange Association said, "We heard from North Korea in February this year that they were ready to send a 100-member cheering squad to the Incheon Asian Games. They'll probably eat and sleep aboard their own ship as they did during the Asian Games in Busan."
Whether sports diplomacy can play a role in thawing cross-border relations remains to be seen. The prospects are dim given that the North took the opportunity to reiterate that it will not abandon its nuclear program, which it said does not pose obstacles to improving inter-Korean relations but rather serves as "collateral" for "peace and prosperity."
Pyongyang urged Seoul to stop turning to other countries to get the North to scrap its nuclear weapons -- an apparent reference at comments by President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week calling on the North to scrap its nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang also denounced Park's vision for Korean reunification as "anti-Korean" and called on South Korea to halt joint military drills with the U.S.
The Unification Ministry spokesman said North Korea's unilateral approach has made it impossible to resolve any problems between the two countries and urged the North to return to the negotiating table.
One member of a state-run think tank here said, "North Korea deliberately raised military tensions ahead of Xi's visit to Korea last week and seems to be trying to counter international criticism with this proposal of sports exchanges."