SEOUL: A delegation of North Korean skiers and skaters arrived in the South on Thursday to take part in the Winter Olympics later this month, Seoul’s unification ministry said.
Their aeroplane landed at an airport near Gangneung, a spokesman said, after a rare direct flight between the two halves of the divided peninsula.
A total of 10 skiers and skaters were expected to make their way to their accommodation in the athletes’ village in Gangneung, on South Korea’s east coast, where the Olympic skating events will be held.
Thursday’s arrivals will compete for North Korea after nuclear-armed Pyongyang agreed last month to send athletes to the Games, following months of entreaties from Seoul to participate in a “peace Olympics”.
The two Koreas also agreed to form a unified women’s ice hockey team, and 12 North Korean skaters arrived last week to join their Southern counterparts.
Outside the airport terminal, well-wishers held up banners Friday depicting reunification flags — a silhouette of the Korean peninsula in blue on a white background – with one reading: “We are one”
But the joint team has not met universal acclaim in the South, with critics saying that Seoul has made too many concessions to Pyongyang to secure its participation, and has effectively denied some of its own players the chance to compete on the Olympic stage.
At the same time, some say the North is seeking to gain advantage from its participation, and reports say it will mark the anniversary of the founding of its regular military with a major military parade a day before the opening ceremony.
Earlier this week, Pyongyang unilaterally called off a joint cultural event slated for Sunday at the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang, underscoring the fragility of the agreements.
“Pyongyang must stop acting unpredictably and fulfill agreements sincerely,” the Seoul-based Korea Herald said in an editorial Thursday. “One cannot erase the impression that the South is trying hard not to pique the North.”
And there are doubts about how long the warmth will last after the Games. Seoul and Washington agreed to delay the giant annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve joint military exercises, which always infuriate Pyongyang, but only until the end of the Paralympics in March.
The Pyeongchang Games have suffered none of the controversies over infrastructure delays that have marred previous Olympics but have struggled with issues of their own.
Until it agreed to take part, the security threat from the North raised fears for athlete safety among some countries, and ticket sales were initially slow.
As of Monday, the latest figures available from organisers, 791,000 out of 1.18 million tickets available had been sold, or 67 per cent.
But hanging over the competition is the vast Russian doping scandal.
The IOC banned Russia from Pyeongchang after the McLaren report, which documented a vast Moscow-backed scheme to artificially enhance its athletes’ performances in previous Games.
In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said clean Russian competitors would be allowed to take part in South Korea under a neutral flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia”.
Those who want to do so are being forced to pass a unique set of anti-doping tests.
At first 500 were thought to be potentially eligible, before the number was cut to 389. And Russian Olympics officials said last week that only 169 had been approved.