INCHEON, South Korea (AP) First hurdle cleared – the Asian Games organizers raised the right flag for North Korea on Thursday. The South Korean break dancers, however, found themselves working a tough audience.
In a hitch-free ceremony, North Korea’s team got its official welcome into the Asian Games’ athletes village on Thursday after a series of controversies that nearly scuttled their trip to the regional mini-Olympics being hosted this year by rival South Korea.
The North Korean team was treated to jugglers, clowns and a group of break dancers – who received polite, but somewhat awkward, smiles as they stepped down from the stage and tried to get some audience participation from the North Korean delegation.
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The mere presence of the North Korean team is politically fraught – animosity is high between the Koreas, which are separated by the world’s most heavily armed border and are technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Even so, North Korean football coach Yun Jong Su said he was happy with the arrangements made for his team.
”The accommodations are well organized,” he said, adding that when his team isn’t playing or practicing they relax in private or ”take walks.”
Conspicuously absent from the event are North Korea’s colorful cheerleading squad, which is made up mostly of women who are trained to dance and sing in unison in support of the nation’s athletes. The cheerleaders have been a big hit abroad – and are particularly popular with South Korean spectators – but Pyongyang decided not to send them because it said Seoul handled discussions about the topic with hostility.
According to South Korean reports, Seoul balked at covering their expenses.
Flags had also been a major obstacle – although the Asian Games organizers made sure Thursday there would be no repeat of the London Olympics, when organizers raised the South Korean flag for a North Korean women’s soccer match, prompting the North Korean team to walk off the pitch.
North Korea flags are now flying outside their apartments at the athletes’ village.
South Korean officials have decided to let the North Korean flag be hoisted in stadiums, sports venues and the athletes’ village, in keeping with precedent from the 2002 Asian Games in Busan and the 2003 University Games in Daegu.
North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, both in Seoul.
The North – including various officials, it is sending a 273-member delegation – is already off to a strong start, with both the men and women winning preliminary football matches.
For Thursday’s match, played before an almost empty stadium, a small but loud group of South Koreans waved blue ”unification” flags, which bear a map of the Korean Peninsula with no border.
”I very much appreciate how they cheered us on for the whole game,” Yun said. North Korea won the game, against Pakistan, 2-0.
Not all the news is good in the North’s sporting world, however.
On Wednesday, the International Gymnastics Federation ruled a North Korean gymnast had for years competed illegally under a fake passport to hide her true age. It withdrew Cha Yong Hwa’s license and banned her from all international competition through 2015 and annulled her results dating back to August 2006.
That would include two medals she won at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar – a silver in the team event and bronze in uneven bars.