Asian Games: North Korea head south in search of gold

A series of extremely rare inter-Korean flights will bring several hundred North Korean athletes and officials south for this month`s Asian Games -- where Pyongyang hopes to make an equally rare international sporting mark.

Asian Games: North Korea head south in search of gold

Seoul: A series of extremely rare inter-Korean flights will bring several hundred North Korean athletes and officials south for this month`s Asian Games -- where Pyongyang hopes to make an equally rare international sporting mark.

One of the most isolated countries in the world, North Korea is a marginal figure on the global sports scene, but current leader Kim Jong-Un seems determined to push it into the spotlight.

And the 17th Asian Games which open in Incheon on September 19 offer the chance to showcase the reclusive nation`s sporting prowess in a country with which it remains technically at war.

Some 150 North Korean athletes and almost an equal number of coaches and officials will attend the Asiad, arriving on half-a-dozen special flights across the Yellow Sea maritime border.

The delegation will be headed by Sports Minister Kim Yong-Hun, who will be the highest-ranking North Korean official to step on South Korean soil for five years.

Direct contact of any sort between the two Koreas has been extremely limited since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North`s participation in the Incheon Asiad was only confirmed after months of tortuous, heated negotiations that coincided with a spike in military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Arguments over the size of the North Korean flag and Seoul`s refusal to foot the entire North delegation`s bill saw Pyongyang threaten a boycott over the South`s "arrogance".

In the end, the North agreed to send its athletes but -- in a blow to the Games organisers -- withdrew the proposed participation of a large group of female cheerleaders.

The cheerleaders, known as the "army of beauties," had taken part in three previous international sporting events in the South -- including the 2002 Asiad in Busan -- and proved a major ticket draw each time.

A busload of cheerleaders attending the 2003 Universiade in Daegu made headlines after "rescuing" a rain-soaked street placard with an image of the then leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae-Jung, shaking hands.

Tearfully protesting at the "disrespect" of allowing an image of Kim Jong-Il to become rain-damaged, the cheerleaders removed the placard and took it away in their bus.Sports and politics are often inseparable on the divided peninsula.

Concerned that protesting anti-Pyongyang activists might vandalise North Korean flags flying near the Incheon Asiad venues, the organisers have removed all national flags from the streets and replaced them with those of the Olympic Council of Asia.

In 2008, the North refused to let South Korea play its national anthem and fly its flag at a 2010 football World Cup qualifier scheduled to be held Pyongyang. Eventually the venue was moved to Shanghai.

The North`s women`s football team walked off the pitch at the 2012 London Olympics, when the South Korean flag was mistakenly displayed on the giant screen as the players were being introduced.

Kim Jong-Un, who took over as leader following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011, is known as something of a sports fan and has taken steps to try to raise the country`s sporting profile.

Precious funds have been pumped into new sports facilities, including a top-class ski resort.

 

Yang Song-Ho, a senior North Korean sporting official who attended pre-Asiad functions in Incheon last month, claimed that "thousands" of new facilities had been built to "realise the goal of sports development set by the state".

Attempts to attract international sporting events have had mixed success, given the North`s diplomatic isolation.

Pyongyang holds an annual international marathon, and recently former Chicago Bulls star Denis Rodman took a group of NBA stars to play an exhibition basketball match to mark Kim`s birthday.

South Korean TV sports pundit Choi Dong-Ho said he expected a reasonably strong showing by the North Koreans in Incheon.

"They did quite well at the London Olympics, winning four golds," Choi said.

"They are very strong in weightlifting, women`s judo and women`s football. They also have world-class gymnasts and wrestlers so I expect the North to rank within the top 10 with about 15 gold medals," he added.

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