The North Korean women's hockey team arrived in South Korea Saturday for an international competition.
The delegation of 20 players and 10 coaches and officials landed at Incheon International Airport via Beijing. Starting Sunday, they will participate in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, some 230 kilometers east of Seoul.
Gangneung Hockey Centre and Kwandong Hockey Centre will be the two venues for the tournament, which will wrap up on April 8. The competition doubles as a test event for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The North Koreans were guarded by some 300 police officers as they left the airport without answering questions from the media. Some waved at the cameras after they boarded a bus bound for Gangneung.
A highly anticipated all-Korea match is scheduled for 9 p.m. Thursday at Gangneung Hockey Centre against the backdrop of increasing tensions on the peninsula.
The hockey game will also come on the eve of a women's football match between the countries in Pyongyang. These contests could help ease strained inter-Korean relations and exchanges sparked by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, though the South Korean government, which approved the North Korean team's cross-border trip Wednesday, has downplayed the significance of the occasion.
North Korean athletes' visit to South Korea needs Seoul's approval, as the two Koreas are technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
South Korea sits 23rd in the current IIHF rankings, three spots above North Korea. The competition will also feature the Netherlands (No. 19), Britain (No. 21), Slovenia (No. 24) and Australia (No. 28). The top nation after the round-robin play will be promoted to Division I Group B next year, while the last-place nation will be relegated to Division II Group B in 2018.
North Korea will open the tournament against Australia at noon Sunday at Gangneung Hockey Centre. South Korea's first game is against Slovenia at 9 p.m. Sunday at Kwandong.
South Korea has beaten North Korea just once in five previous meetings, and that lone victory came in April 2016 at the Division II Group A championship in Slovenia, where South Korea prevailed 4-1.
Coached by former U.S. college standout Sarah Murray, South Korea finished in fourth place at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, in February. It was the country's best result at the continental competition. North Korea didn't play.
Murray will bring back the core members of the Asian Winter Games squad, including No. 1 goalie Shin So-jung and top-line forward Park Jong-ah. (Yonhap)