A group of North Korean taekwondo officials and athletes arrived in South Korea on Friday for soon-to-be historic performances at the world championships.
Amid much fanfare at Gimpo International Airport in Seoul, the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) delegation of 36, led by its president Ri Yong-son, arrived south of the tense border via Beijing. Of those 36, 32 are North Koreans. Their flight was delayed by more than an hour due to inclement weather.
Ri was joined by Chang Ung, former ITF chief and the only North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and a dozen performers.
The demonstration team will perform during the opening ceremony of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) World Taekwondo Championships on Saturday in Muju, some 240 kilometers south of Seoul. The competition will run through next Friday, and the ITF team will also perform in the closing ceremony.
The ITF's team will have a historic joint performance with a WTF team. It will be the first such performance by an ITF demonstration team at a WTF competition held in South Korea.
This is the ITF's first visit to South Korea in 10 years.
The ITF athletes will also stage shows in Jeonju, a neighboring city of Muju in North Jeolla Province, next Monday, and at Kukkiwon, the world taekwondo headquarters in Seoul, two days later.
The two organizations held a joint performance during the 2015 WTF world championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia. This was a few months after the two signed the "Protocol of Accord," a landmark agreement that deals with exchanges of demonstration teams, among other matters of cooperation.
The ITF's trip comes at a time of unceasing tensions on the divided peninsula. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on May 10, has vowed to take a dual-track policy of keeping pressure on North Korea while seeking dialogue.
During the ITF officials' stay, the WTF is expected to discuss a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang in September, when the ITF will have its own world championships.
"We hope taekwondo from our two organizations can be integrated for the good of our people," Ri said. "We're here in accordance with the agreement we signed in August 2014. We expect to do a lot of good things for our people in the future."
The South Korean government will cover the cost of the ITF delegation's stay. The unification ministry said some 70 million won (US$61,400) from inter-Korean cooperative funds will go toward covering the delegates' flight and accommodations.
During the 2014 Asian Games and Asian Para Games in Incheon, just west of Seoul, South Korea also tapped into the funds for 460 million won to cover North Korean athletes' expenses.
The competition itself will be the largest ever in its 44-year history. The WTF said 969 athletes and 796 officials from 183 nations have registered to participate. The 2009 event in Copenhagen had previously been the largest with 928 athletes from 142 nations.
Seoul has also taken steps to resume civilian inter-Korean exchanges to an extent that would not compromise the international sanctions regime. But Pyongyang has turned down South Korean civic groups' offer to revive exchanges in protest of the South's support of the latest U.N. sanctions.
In the meantime, North Korea has conducted five missile launches since Moon's inauguration.
Officials from both the WTF and the ITF have expressed hopes that the ITF's trip will help ease tensions in the region.
In April, the South Korean women's football team faced North Korea in Pyongyang, while the North Korean women's hockey team played South Korea in Gangneung, some 230 kilometers east of Seoul. (Yonhap)