The Hula Report: Shaking Hands With North Korea

(ATR) North Korea heads to its first Winter Paralympics. Donald Trump takes credit for Olympic peace moves. ATR Editor Ed Hula has more.

(ATR) North Korea sends its first team to the Winter Paralympics opening this week in PyeongChang.

The delegation may not be subject to the same clamor that accompanied the North Korean team to the Winter Olympics last month. But the continued interaction between North and South keeps fueling hope that sport has become a bridge to peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The latest overtures from North Korea to open up talks on possible denuclearization would be proof of that.Even U.S. President Donald Trump saluted the impact of the Olympics on peacemaking for the Korean Peninsula, taking credit for the development.

"We had a lot to do with it. The Olympics were beautiful,"said Trump in remarks to reporters at the White House March 6.

"They were really very successful. And as you know they weren’t looking that way prior to. So I thought North Korea was terrific. They came out. They went into the Olympics. They went in with good spirit. They did well. It’s, let’s see if we can carry it over. We may carry it over, we may not. It’s a very tenuous situation. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens."

Already the Winter Paralympics have extended the delay in planned military exercises by South Korean and US troops. Those maneuvers, once planned for January were postponed for both the Olympics and Paralympics, ending March 18.

On the sports front, there is still no date set for a visit to North Korea by IOC President Thomas Bach. Included as one of the points in the agreement struck in January between the IOC and Korean leaders, an IOC spokesman tells ATRthis week that plans for a visit by Bach are still in the works.

Bach visited North Korea when he was a member of the Executive Board in 1999. Then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch asked Bach to go to Pyongyang. Bach was to assess the willingness of the DPRK to participate jointly in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The subsequent march of the unified team was the first in a series that also included Athens and Turin.

Retired IOC member Gerhard Heiberg tells Around the Rings that he was summoned by IOC President Jacques Rogge to make a secret visit to North Korea in 2007.

PyeongChang was launching its second bid for the Winter Olympics, this time for 2014. Heiberg says the IOC president wanted to know how North Korea would look upon South Korea as an organizer of the Winter Games. And he says a second question was whether North Korea would agree to a leg of the Olympic torch relay that crossed from South to North.

"To the second one, they said to me ‘no, under no circumstances'. But for the first they said ‘we would support that strongly’," Heiberg said.

"I have been a strong believer in this after I was there and talked with them," Heibergsaid about the possibility of North Korea participating in a South Korean Winter Olympics.

He spoke to ATR in late January, literally days after agreements were made for North Korea to come to PyeongChang.

"When that came out I said to myself, fantastic. That’s what I thought all the time and that’s what they told me," says Heiberg, who led the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics and chaired the IOC inspection team that visited PyeongChang in 2003 during its first bid for the Winter Games.

More contact with North Korea is ahead for some of the Winter sports federations after the PyeongChang experience. The bobsleigh federation is said to be interested in developing a skeleton and two man bob team in time for the next winter Olympics in Beijing 2022.

Participation in the Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang should stimulate opportunities for more than the six Para Nordic skiers who will take part this time.

While there is a cachet over North Korea participation at these Winter Olympics and Paralympics in South Korea, the two nations encounter each other regularly in world sport. Both appeared at the 2016 Games in Rio. North and South Korea have always participated in the Asian Games and sometimes marched together. The 2018 edition in Jakarta should be no different.

DPRK Olympic Committee president Kim Il Guk is an affable representative for his NOC. The 52-year-old attended his first Olympics in Rio two years ago and appears to be keen to hold open the door to help grow North Korean sport.

He held a number of informal meetings with federation leaders in the lobby of the IOC hotel during the PyeongChang Olympics. In a conversation with Around the Rings, Kim said visitors are welcome in North Korea.

"We want to invite you and others to come to our country to see the sport development that is taking place," Kim said.

Sitting nearby was Ung Chang, the IOC member in North Korea. At age 80 he must step down this year for retirement. Kim has a good laugh at the suggestion that he could become the next IOC member from the DPRK.

"That’s up to the IOC," he answers diplomatically.

"I’m proud of our team. They did their best," Kim says about the experience in PyeongChang.

"We are happy to come. We hope there are more opportunities for us to compete," says the NOC leader.

Reported in PyeongChang by Ed Hula.