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North Korean athletes arrive in South

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North Korean athletes at the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea AFP / JAVIER SORIANO

SEOUL (AFP) – North Korean athletes arrived in the South yesterday for joint training ahead of the Asian Games next month, the latest effort at rare cross-border sports diplomacy.

The two Koreas agreed last month to field joint teams in three sports – canoeing, rowing and women’s basketball – at the Asiad in Jakarta and Palembang from August 18 to September 2.

Dressed in matching light blue outfits, the delegation of 34 athletes and coaches landed at Incheon International Airport via Beijing.

Their exact schedules have yet to be determined but the North Koreans are expected to begin training with their South Korean teammates next week.

It is the first time North and South Korea have formed unified teams to compete at the Asian Games.

The two countries – which are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty – will also march together at the opening and closing ceremonies in Indonesia.

The move follows an agreement between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s president Moon Jae-in at their summit in April.

Sporting cooperation helped spark the current diplomatic thaw between the two Koreas after the North sent a high-level delegation and athletes to the Winter Olympics.

Efforts have gathered pace since then, leading to a landmark summit between Kim and Donald Trump in June.

Indonesia president Joko Widodo formally invited the Korean leaders to the Asian Games.

The two Koreas formed their first-ever unified Olympic team – a joint women’s ice hockey squad – for February’s games in Pyeongchang.

The idea for a joint team initially sparked a backlash in the South on the grounds that Seoul was depriving its own athletes of the chance to compete.

But ultimately, the sight of North and South Korean players wearing the same jerseys drew emotive responses from spectators and the squad quickly became an Olympic favourite despite being thrashed in competition.

Earlier, a group of 50 South Korean basketball players visited Pyongyang, and a team of North Koreans will be in Seoul in the autumn for another round.

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