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All eyes on North Korea

Busan, Sept. 28 (AP): If gold medals were awarded for causing excitement, North Korea would be the winner at the 14th Asian Games beginning on Sunday.

With the South Koreans looking out for any signs of the reclusive Communist north easing hostility and seeking reconciliation, the presence of a North Korean team at the Games is in itself an achievement.

The two sides have been divided since 1945, and fought a war in 1950-53. Although the south has been host to major international sports competition in the past, including the 1988 Olympics, the north always had boycotted them.

At the Games’ stadiums, gymnasiums, pools and golf courses, China is expected to win the gold medals race for the sixth consecutive Asian Games. In the last games in Bangkok in 1998, China won 129 gold medals, South Korea 65 and Japan 52.

Over the next two weeks, some 6,700 athletes from 44 nations will compete for 420 gold medals in 38 sports.

The lineup of 44 nations — the highest ever at the Games — includes newly independent East Timor, sending its team into the opening ceremonies just two days after joining the United Nations.

Also here is war-ravaged Afghanistan, which under its previous Taliban government had been banned, in part for keeping women out of sports.

Local news coverage, however, has focused on the North Koreans. A cheering contingent of about 300 North Koreans arrived on Saturday by a ship, which will serve as their home during the Games.

The north and south Koreans will enter together in Sunday’s opening ceremony, behind a ‘unification flag’ depicting the entire Korean peninsula.

As hosts, the Koreans will march last in the athletes’ parade, which is to be in Korean alphabetical order with Nepal first.

The only exception to that order is the “diplomatic” step of allowing China to enter before Taiwan.

In the 1998 Games, North Korea tied India for eighth in gold medals with seven.

The north also has the world’s tallest basketball player, 7.9 feet Ri Myong Hoon. China has 7.5 feet Yao Ming.

South Korea has a strong chance of winning the Games’ first gold medal. The only medal events on opening day are men’s foil and epee fencing, and the South Korean entries include Kim Young-ho, a foil fencer who won Asia’s first Olympic gold in the sport in 2000.

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