Koreas to march under same flag at Olympic opening ceremony in historic first

The event will provide a rare display of unity -- with caveats.

In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-Sung, (R) shakes hands with the head of North Korean delegation Jon Jong-Su (L) after their meeting on January 17, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. CREDIT: South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images
In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-Sung, (R) shakes hands with the head of North Korean delegation Jon Jong-Su (L) after their meeting on January 17, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. CREDIT: South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images

North and South Korean athletes will march under the same flag at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, a diplomatic breakthrough that comes amid ongoing tension over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In an announcement Wednesday, the South said the two neighboring countries — who are technically at war with each other — would march together in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the Olympics are set to begin next month. A joint women’s ice hockey team composed of North Korean and South Korean athletes will also compete in the international event. Other displays of unity include joint training for skiers in North Korea along with a cultural event held in the country. The North has also offered to send 230 cheerleaders.

The two nations will walk under the Korean Unification flag, which features the Korean peninsula in blue against a white background:

The move reflects the rapidly-shifting reality of Korean relations. Tensions in the region have escalated dramatically as the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ramped up its nuclear efforts. The involvement of the United States, South Korea’s ally, has also created problems. President Trump has repeatedly lashed out at North Korea, taunting the regime and indicating a willingness to use military force in the case of an escalation. For his part, Kim Jong-un has belittled Trump and threatened to strike the U.S. state of Hawaii and territory of Guam.

That antagonism hasn’t played out quite as expected over the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). The election of Moon Jae-in, who favors engaging the North in talks, has shifted regional relations. North Korea’s regime has also grown increasingly willing to reach out to the South, something experts have posited may be an attempt to build on tensions between South Korea and the United States. The North recently re-opened a hotline used to communicate over the border, an act preceding Wednesday’s announcement.

Any thaw between North and South Korea comes with a number of caveats, not least of all in the context of the Olympics. North Korea has historically used the prospect of unity to bolster the country’s international image while demanding concessions in exchange for its compliance. During the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, South Korea agreed to pay for North Korean uniforms and bowed to other requests from the neighboring nation.

But South Korea has its own reasons for wanting the North to peacefully attend the Olympics. Prior to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air flight on orders from the government, seemingly in a larger effort to disrupt and impact the success of the event. Fears of North Korean activity have similarly overshadowed the upcoming Games in Pyeongchang, something Seoul would very much like to avoid.

Those factors haven’t escaped international attention. Neither have questions over North Korea’s motives. As representatives from 20 countries met in Vancouver, Canada on Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono cautioned against trusting the regime’s overtures of goodwill.

“I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs,” Kono said. “It’s not the time to ease pressure towards North Korea.”

Other governments panned the Vancouver talks themselves, including China, which cautioned against a “split” within the international community on Korean nuclear issues.

South Korea touted Wednesday’s announcement as a “significant step” but reiterated international concerns.

“Despite these overtures to improve relations with the South, North Korea has yet to show any intention to fulfill its international obligations regarding denuclearization,” said South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.

The Olympic Games begin February 9.