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International relations

Olympics an opportunity to break North Korean standoff: UN chief

Guterres to attend Pyeongchang opening ceremony

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres   © Reuters

UNITED NATIONS -- As North and South Korean athletes prepare to meet on the ice at the upcoming Winter Olympics, signs of a thaw between the two countries provide hope for a peaceful resolution to Pyongyang's nuclear issue, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday.

"What I believe is extremely important is to take profit of these signals of hope to make sure that a serious process leading to the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula takes place," Guterres told reporters at his first official news briefing of the year.

"That window of opportunity will, in my opinion, hopefully make the war avoidable," Guterres said. "But it is important that we don't miss the opportunities that windows can provide." The U.N. chief will travel to South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the global sporting event in Pyeongchang.

North Korea's planned participation in the Olympics has been widely viewed as a positive development, though there have been some concerns about the possibility of some U.N. sanctions being skirted to accommodate visiting athletes and officials from the country. Guterres rejected this suggestion, citing "full confidence" that South Korea would be able to handle the logistical challenges of hosting the North's team without the risk of sanctions violations.

"My only concern is sometimes that we look at these symbols of goodwill and positive indications and we forget that the main problem is yet to be solved," Guterres said, most likely in reference to the nuclear issue.

"It's very important that we have these conversations between the two Koreas, it's very important that we have these Olympic games, but let's not forget that the essential problem is yet to be solved," he said.

In addition to the "potential nuclear catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula," the secretary-general addressed a number of other issues facing the international community in 2018, citing climate change, inequality and nationalism.

The U.N. kicks off a new year facing cuts to the budgets of a number of its organs -- in many instances the result of strong lobbying by the Trump administration in Washington. Though Guterres gave little indication of concern that such reductions would cause significant trouble to the organization's operations, he was concerned by the possibility of U.S. cuts to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinian refugees.

Calling UNRWA's services of "extreme importance," Guterres noted that the debilitation of the agency "will create a very, very serious problem, and we will do everything we can to avoid this situation to occur."

"I strongly hope that in the end, it will be possible for the United States to maintain the funding of UNRWA, in which the U.S. has a very important share," Guterres said.

On a positive note, Guterres, who has made achieving gender parity within the top levels of the organization one of his main reform goals, announced that parity was reached Monday with the appointment of Bience Gawanas of Namibia as new special adviser on Africa.

"For the first time in history, we have full parity in the top leadership of the United Nations: the 44-member Senior Management Group," Guterres said in his opening remarks at the news conference. "And we will continue to do more to empower women and uphold our core commitment to equality and gender parity."

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