SEOUL: A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, one of the largest peacetime crossings of the inter-Korean border, to spur on athletes from the two Koreas at the Winter Olympics starting Friday.
The delegation, made up mostly of a 229-member cheer squad, reached a border checkpoint by bus at around 0030 GMT, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.
In addition to the cheering squad, there were 26 taekwondo performers, 21 journalists and four North Korean Olympics committee members, including Sports Minister Kim Il-guk, the Unification Ministry said.
After security controls the group left for the Olympics venue in the alpine resort town of Pyeongchang.
Their arrival comes a day after a North Korean ferry crossed the border carrying a 140-strong orchestra to perform during the Games.
Aside from the sports officials, the group will be housed at Inje Speedium Hotel and Resort, a four-star luxury hotel roughly two-hours drive from the Olympic venue in Pyeongchang.
Days before the group’s arrival, workers at Inje Speedium had placed banners around the premises welcoming the North Koreans, reading “We are one” and “welcome”.
Police have been deployed to enforce safety at the resort.
The members of North Korea’s Olympics committee are expected to stay at the Pyeongchang Holiday Inn, a subsidiary of InterContinental Hotels Group.
The taekwondo performance team is scheduled to hold four shows during their stay in South Korea. Two demonstrations will be held near Pyeongchang, while the team will travel to the capital Seoul for the remaining two.
During their Seoul visit, the home will be the five-star Grand Walkerhill for the North Koreans, which overlooks the Han River and previously hosted American celebrities like Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton.
After the art troupe arrived on Tuesday in a ferry, which is also being used as accommodation, North Korea has asked South Korea to provide oil to refuel the vessel, the Unification Ministry said on Wednesday.
Oil is a sensitive item and has taken centre stage in global efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, with Washington calling for a drastic cut in energy supplies to the isolated country.
North Korea has virtually no domestic oil production and has traditionally imported its fuel demand from China and Russia.
In December, the UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on the North, seeking to ban nearly 90 per cent of refined petroleum exports to the country by capping them at 500,000 barrels a year.
“There was a request for oil support during our discussions with the North after the ship arrived, and we’re reviewing it now”, ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing in Seoul.
Asked about concerns that South Korea was making exceptions to the sanctions, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was important not to let up the pressure.
“We must not be fooled by North Korea’s ‘smile diplomacy,” he told a news conference in Tokyo.
The orchestra is scheduled to perform at Gangneung, near Pyeongchang, on Thursday and in Seoul on Sunday.
As the ferry was docked at a South Korean port, it was greeted by angry protesters who held large photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with black crosses drawn through them.
Pyongyang’s state media lashed out at the rallies as a “never-to-be-condoned farce of confrontation with fellow countrymen”.
“Those conservatives have staged such disgusting farces”, the official KCNA news agency said. “Not content with it, they put an affront on the mission that came to celebrate an event of the nation”.