One of the most poignant scenes at the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony Feb. 9 will be a show of unity as North and South Korean athletes enter the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium side by side, under a common flag.
The next day, according to a deal made hastily in mid-January, a joint women’s hockey team will compete as “Korea” — the first time the still-warring nations have competed together in an Olympics event.
“It’s a gesture for peace and security in the region,” a North Korean spokesman, who identified himself as Mr. Ri, tells PEOPLE by phone from the DPRK Permanent Mission to the United Nations. “The Games are a good step for the national reconciliation of all Koreans, and also regarded as a national festival.”
Twenty-two North Koreans will take part in the Winter Olympics. None of them are expected to win medals. Only a pair of North Korean ice skaters — Kim Ju-sik, 25, and Ryom Tae-ok, 18 — initially qualified for the Winter Olympics, but North Korea neglected to register them by the deadline. (More on them later.)
Uncertainty over North Korea’s participation had cast a shadow over plans for the PyeongChang Olympics in late 2017, as North Korea accelerated its nuclear and missile programs and the Trump Administration exchanged warlike insults with leader Kim Jong Un. The host city is just 50 miles from the militarized border between the two Koreas.
RELATED VIDEO: How Snowboarder Chloe Kim Is Poised to Dominate the Winter Olympics — at Just 17!
Then, in a conciliatory New Year’s address, President Kim announced he hoped for a “resolution” with South Korea, and would send a delegation to the Winter Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee bent its rules to allow the North Koreans “wild card” spots in the Olympics, including six skiers, four ice skaters and 12 women’s hockey players, who will compete alongside South Korean women as a hockey team under the name “Korea.”
The two Koreas have technically remained at war ever since the 1950-53 Korean War failed to end in a peace treaty. Athletes from both Koreas first competed together at the 1991 world table-tennis championship in Japan. They paraded together under the Unification Flag — a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on a white background — at the Olympic opening ceremonies in Athens, Torino and, in 2010, the opening ceremony in Sydney, at which they received a standing ovation for their gesture of goodwill.
Koreans to Watch
North Korean ice skaters Kim and Ryom: Though underdogs in PyeongChang, the pair won bronze at the 2017 Asian Winter Games and is the closest North Korea has to medal contenders. They perform in the free-skate to “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles.
Cheerleaders: Along with an arts troupe, North Korea is sending an elite, 230-woman cheering squad who may get more attention than some of the athletes. Dubbed the “Army of Beauties” in South Korea, the young North Korean women are a big deal on the peninsula. Ri Sol Ju, the wife of North Korean President Kim, was photographed as a member of the squad in 2005. “They are beautiful,” Mr. Li tells PEOPLE.
Protesters: Protesters met the first North Korean envoy as it arrived to check venues on Jan. 21, warning that the North was on a charm offensive meant to undermine international sanctions. Most South Koreans are eager for peace with their neighbors, however, so protests should be less common than displays of goodwill.
The all-Korean women’s hockey team: The South Koreans received an automatic berth as host country, and its’ Canadian coach and some players complained about giving up spots last minute to North Koreans. The Korean folk song “Arirang” will play before games instead of either country’s national anthem. Expect the combined team, which would not have qualified for the Winter Olympics on merit, to outshine their opponents in symbolism and emotion.
South Korean speed skaters: South Korea excels in short-track speed skating, winning gold 21 times since the sport was added to the Winter Olympics in 1992. The pressure will be on women such as Choi-Min Jeong to deliver gold in front of home fans. South Korean Olympic rookie Seo-Yi Ra, who won the world overall title in 2017, will lead his nation’s men’s team.