By ERIC TALMADGE
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – How much was it worth to Seoul for hundreds of North Koreans to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics? Try $2.5 million.
According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, that’s the record amount the country has allotted to pay the bills of more than 400 North Koreans, only 22 of whom were athletes, at the Pyeongchang Games.
The North’s performers – a 140-member orchestra with vocalists and dancers, an all-female 229-member cheering squad and a demonstration taekwondo team – have been a major attraction at and around the Games. That’s both because their presence itself is seen as a sign of eased tensions after a very rough year and because of the exotic appeal they have due to the general isolation of their country.
The cheerleaders have been an especially big hit and an unmistakable part of every event they have attended – though their cheers usually have little connection to the action on the ice or snow.
It may seem odd or even self-defeating for the South to pay Pyongyang to send delegations that are heavy on propaganda vehicles like cheering squads or artistic troupes and light on athletes. In recent years, though, it has become something of a given.The North has sent big delegations similar to the one now stealing the off-competition spotlight at Pyeongchang three times before.
For the Asian Games in Busan in 2002, it shelled out 1.35 billion won (about $1.3 million), then 890 million won ($836,000) for a Universiade in 2003 and another 410 million ($385,000) for the Asian Games in 2014.
“The North Korean delegation’s participation in the 2018 Olympics will be an opportunity for cooperation and reconciliation between the North and South,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a statement released on Wednesday that included the cost figure.
The ministry said the expenditure is in line with its domestic North-South cooperation funding law, but it stressed the spending should not be considered a step back from Seoul’s global commitments.
“We will continue to work closely with the international community regarding international sanctions against the North,” the statement said.
The funds did not pay for a visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister and senior regime officials to attend the Games’ opening ceremony.
During that three-day visit, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang.
Eric Talmadge, The Associated Press’ Pyongyang bureau chief, is on assignment at the Pyeongchang Games. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @erictalmadge.
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