S. Korea welcomes 'special' Olympic skaters from North

Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik, who have become the first North Koreans to qualify for the 2018 Games in South Korea's Pyeongchang, perform during the pairs free skating programme of the 49th Nebelhorn trophy in Oberstdorf, southern Germany (AFP Photo/Christof STACHE) (AFP)

South Korean organisers of next year's Winter Olympics welcomed Saturday the "special" qualifying of figure skaters from the North, as Seoul seeks to promote its isolated neighbour's participation as a key part of the "Peace Games".

Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik became the first North Koreans to qualify for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games on Friday after winning one of the five Olympic pairs spots available at a qualifying tournament in Germany.

It means the North can now make plans to compete without waiting to find out if it will be handed wild card entries -- although Pyongyang has yet to formally confirm that its athletes will take part in the Games.

"We're really excited that North Korean athletes have qualified to compete at the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang," the Pyeongchang organising committee said in a statement.

"With North Korea's participation, the Games in PyeongChang will be the greatest celebration of sport and we welcome all athletes to share in this special moment with us."

International concerns have mounted over the Pyeongchang Olympics -- to be held 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the heavily fortified border between the nations -- after a recent series of missile launches and a nuclear test by the North.

Verbal threats of war between North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump have pushed tensions higher.

With some nations suggesting they may skip the event if the situation persists, organisers of the event have repeatedly promised "perfect security."

Seoul has pinned its hopes on the North's participation next year providing a symbolic move to ease tension, and to promote an event the organisers have described as the "Olympics of peace".

President Moon Jae-In in July urged the International Olympic Committee to help the isolated, impoverished country compete at Pyeongchang, saying it would contribute to regional and world peace.

Other suggested ways to involve North Korea have included forming a unified team, which would allow the country's athletes to play alongside South Koreans in events such as ice hockey.

North Korea boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. But Chang Ung, the country's IOC member, said earlier this month he expected North Korea's Olympic Committee to approve its athletes' participation.

"I am quite sure that politics is one thing and Olympics is another thing. So I don't see any big problem for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games," he said.

The South and the nuclear-armed North are separated by one of the world's most heavily armed borders and remain technically at war after the Korean War ended with armistice in 1953 instead of a peace treaty.