North Korea said Tuesday it will send a delegation of high-ranking officials, athletes and cheerleaders to next month's Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, as the two countries held their first official talks in more than two years.
Amid growing expectations of a thaw in bilateral relations, the rival Koreas adopted a joint statement saying that they agreed to work closely toward the success of the games and the Paralympics in Pyeongchang, and hold military talks on reducing tensions along the border.
But Ri Son Gwon, head of North Korea's delegation, cautioned that discussing its nuclear program would hurt inter-Korean relations, as both sides wrapped up the 11-hour meeting with some breaks in between.
When the last part of the talks was open to some reporters, Ri said his country's nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles are targeting the United States, not South Korea or countries like China or Russia, and it would not be of benefit to address an issue unrelated to the two Koreas.
In a deal apparently pushed by Pyongyang, the joint statement also stated that the two Koreas are the "very parties" responsible for their issues, which should be resolved through negotiations.
With North Korea's participation in the Olympics slated for Feb. 9-25 being now fixed, South Korea will accelerate its preparations to welcome the delegation, also including performing artists and journalists.
The International Olympic Committee welcomed North Korea's participation and said it is waiting for more details to study how it can be realized.
"These proposals mark a great step forward in the Olympic spirit," IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement.
South Korea proposed that they march together during the opening and closing ceremonies, and form a joint cheerleading team.
Chun Hae Sung, South Korea's vice minister of unification, told reporters that Seoul also proposed reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War around the Lunar New Year holiday in February.
North and South Korea agreed to hold various negotiations to improve relations, the joint document said. But North Korea has yet to accept Seoul's proposal to hold Red Cross talks for the reunions.
The principal topic of the high-level meeting in the truce village of Panmunjeom was North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics, but the discussions went beyond that.
Chun said North Korea has restored a military hotline on the west coast with South Korea. It is set to operate normally from Wednesday.
The two Koreas last week reopened a communication channel at Panmunjeom, after Pyongyang cut off both lines in February 2016 in protest at Seoul's closure of a joint industrial zone.
Soon after senior officials sat down for the one-day meeting, Ri said he wants to present "precious results to the entire Korean people, who have high hopes for this dialogue, as the New Year's first gift."
Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon, who represented South Korea, said he expects the Winter Olympics to become a peace festival with North Korea's participation.
The five-member delegations of the two countries included senior officials from their respective sports ministries and Olympic committees.
The South and North Korean chief delegates to the meeting, the first of its kind since December 2015, at the Peace House in the border village in the Demilitarized Zone are both veteran negotiators on inter-Korean relations.
Ri, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, North Korea's agency that deals with ties with South Korea, is an official with a military background.
He began representing North Korea in military talks with South Korea in the mid-2000s and his position as chairman of the committee was confirmed in late 2016, about half a year after the agency was upgraded to a state-level body from an affiliate of the ruling Workers' Party.
The latest talks materialized quickly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered an olive branch of sorts to South Korea in a New Year's address.
Following months of ballistic missile tests, Kim said he is open to dialogue with Seoul to improve bilateral ties and expressed for the first time Pyongyang's intent to join the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Still, in the annual speech, Kim remained steadfast in his pursuit of advancing North Korea's weapons program and pledged to launch a nuclear strike against the United States if his country is threatened.
U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend welcomed the rare talks between the two Koreas, saying they may lead to a positive development, although officials from some countries are concerned that Pyongyang's overture may be an attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
"If something can happen and something can come out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity. That would be a great thing for the world," Trump said.
Trump also said he is open to speaking to the North Korean leader, who marked what is believed to be his 35th birthday on Monday.
But he added that any conversation with Kim would not come without preconditions and suggested that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.