North Korean team welcomed at Asian Games
Sep. 18, 2014
INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Flags have been raised, political hurdles crossed, and athletes from north and south of the divided Korean peninsula are another step closer to the start line at the 2014 Asian Games.
The 273-strong North Korea delegation was welcomed with spinning break dancers, an exchange of gifts and the hoisting of the flag, all without a hitch to the relief of Incheon organizers on Thursday.
South Korea usually bans the display of the North Korean flag, but has permitted it in stadiums, sports venues and the athletes' village for the two-week duration of the continental competition that kicks off Friday in this port city west of the capital Seoul.
Tensions remain high between the sides, 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.
Conspicuously absent from the event is North Korea's squad of female cheerleaders who've been a big hit among South Korean spectators at past events. 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.
The hardline communist North is extremely sensitive to any perceived slight, and its women soccer players walked off the pitch at the 2012 London Olympics when organizers mistakenly displayed the South Korean flag during player introductions. In a further reminder of the political division of the Korean Peninsula, reporters from the North covering the games are using fax machines and American email services to file their stories because the websites they use are blocked in the South.
On the sidelines at Incheon, the Olympic Council of Asia is weighing up Indonesia's bid to host the next Asian Games in 2018 after Vietnam pulled out as host over financial concerns.
The OCA executive board was scheduled to meet Friday morning, with a general assembly to follow on Saturday, when Indonesia is expected to be confirmed as host of the next edition. Jakarta stepped in after Vietnam announced it couldn't afford to host the games.
Similar concerns have arisen over the estimated $2 billion cost of the Incheon Games, which are set to feature almost 10,000 athletes taking part in 42 sports. Incheon built 17 new sports facilities for the games, and its mayor at one point threatened to renounce them if the central government in Seoul didn't step in to pay more of the costs.
South Korea has staged a number of major international sporting events in recent years, including the 1988 Summer Olympics and two earlier editions of the Asian Games, and co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan.
Although the 2014 Games have not yet officially opened, competition continued in the football preliminaries Thursday. Cheered on by South Korean fans, North Korea's men advanced to the knockout round with a 2-0 victory over Pakistan. The football competition started this week so that it can finish before the games close on Oct. 4.
Not all the news has been positive 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.
Organizers promote the Asian Games as the mini-Olympics for athletes from all over the continent, but the composition of some delegations is already causing consternation.
New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized Saudi Arabia for not including any women among its athletes in Incheon, despite a pledge to include them at the Olympic Games in Rio in two years.
"Refusing to send women to the Asian Games casts doubts on Saudi Arabia's commitment to end discrimination and allow Saudi women to participate in future competitions," Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director said in an e-mailed statement.
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.