| Balloons fly over the Asian Games village in Busan Monday, during the opening of the village and the hoisting of the flags of 44 participating countries. (AFP )
Busan: North Korean athletes and officials arrived in South Korea’s second city of Busan on Monday to take part in the Asian Games, the latest in an unprecedented flurry of contacts between the rival states.
In the first part of the largest delegation North Korea has sent to the South, 159 athletes and team staff arrived in Busan, the venue of the September 29-October 14 Games.
“We are hoping for your co-operation,” a senior North Korean official said after being greeted by South Koreans who were dressed in traditional costume and waving “unification flags” — a light blue outline of the whole peninsula on a white background — instead of the North Korean flag.
The North Korean flag is usually banned in the South but will be allowed at the athletes’ village and medal ceremonies.
Woman judoka Kye Sun-hui, a 1996 Olympic medallist, and giant basketball player Ri Myung-hun, once a candidate to play in the NBA, were among those who arrived on Monday.
The North asked the Busan Asian Games organisers to provide an extra-long bed and a special bus for Ri, who is 2.35 metres (seven feet seven inches) tall.
Another 152 athletes and officials will reach Friday. The North Korean squad will stay at the athletes’ village with counterparts from 43 countries.
Supporters — about 355 of them — from North Korea will sail down the east coast of the Korean peninsula and arrive in Busan on Saturday. They will be staying on the ferry, an organising committee official said.
North Korea is expected to win about 10 gold medals among the 419 up for grabs. It ranked eighth, getting seven golds, in the last Asian Games in Bangkok four years ago.
North Korea has hitherto shunned all big sporting events hosted by the rival South, including the 1986 Asian Games, the 1988 Olympic Games and the 2002 World Cup soccer finals.
North and South Korea are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.