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story.lead_photo.caption North Korean officials (left) shake hands with South Korean Unification Ministry officials Wednesday in the border village of Panmunjom after reaching agreement to field a unified Olympic team with their athletes parading together when the games open next month at Pyeongchang, South Korea.

SEOUL, South Korea -- The rival Koreas agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and have their athletes parade together for the first time in 11 years during the opening ceremony of next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, officials said.

The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee, but they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring cooperation during the Olympics after a year of heightened tension over the North's nuclear weapons program.

During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements, including fielding a joint women's ice hockey team and marching together under a blue and white "unification flag" depicting their peninsula in the opening ceremony, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

A joint statement distributed by the ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation will travel to South Korea across their heavily fortified land border before the Feb. 9-25 games in Pyeongchang. It said the delegation will include a 230-member cheering group, a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team, journalists, athletes and officials.

[NUCLEAR NORTH KOREA: Maps, data on country’s nuclear program]

Ahead of the Olympics, the Koreas will hold a joint cultural event at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain and have non-Olympic skiers train together at the North's Masik ski resort, according to the statement. It said the North also plans to send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics in March. The North earlier said it would send a 140-member art troupe.

It's still not clear how many North Korean athletes will go to Pyeongchang because none are currently qualified. South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the International Olympic Committee.

A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year's Olympics, but the country missed a deadline to confirm their participation. The committee said recently that it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games. Committee officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the Pyeongchang organizing committee in Switzerland on Saturday.

The committee said in statement Wednesday that it has "taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources."

"There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating [national Olympic committees] and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne," the statement said, referring to the committee using its initials.

The two Koreas have sent joint teams to major international sports events twice previously, both in 1991.

During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together in the opening and closing ceremonies of nine international sporting events, including the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but they failed to produce a joint team. Their last joint march was at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.

The current reconciliation mood began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year's speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the games. Critics have said Kim's overture is an attempt to use improved ties with South Korea to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions on North Korea while buying time to perfect his nuclear weapons program.

The moves nevertheless have provided a temporary thaw in the Koreas' long-strained ties and fostered optimism that North Korea won't launch any new provocations, at least during the Olympics. Last year, North Korea carried out its sixth and biggest nuclear test explosion and test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles, and Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump traded threats of war and crude insults against each other.

The White House says the joint Olympic team is an opportunity for North Korea to see the value of ending its international isolation by getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Trump lashed out at Russia, accusing it of helping North Korea evade United Nations sanctions intended to press the country to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

"Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea," Trump said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. "What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing."

Trump has leaned on China to curb its support for Kim's regime.

Information for this article was contributed by Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News

A Section on 01/18/2018

Print Headline: Koreas agree to joint Olympic team

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