A dozen of North Korean women’s ice hockey players have crossed the heavily guarded border into South Korea on Thursday to form a joint team for next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
In a rare call for unification, both countries last week settled to create a joint team for the upcoming Olympics.
North and South Korea also agreed to march together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony of the Games.
This will be the first time that the two Koreas field a joint team at a multi-sport competition.
The North’s arrival
Dressed in white-and-red winter parkas emblazoned with the North Korean flag, the ice hockey players arrived on Thursday to South Korea’s athletes’ village in Jincheon, 56 miles south of Seoul.
They were welcomed by their neighboring teammates and Canadian coach Sarah Murray, who greeted them with flower bouquets in an indoor ceremony.
Pak Chol Ho, a North’s coach that arrived with the delegation told the press that he is happy to team up with the South.
“I'm very pleased with the fact that North and South are united as one to participate. I expect we'll see good results if we unite our efforts ... though we don't have much time,” he said.
According to Reuters, as the North’s players arrived, a large number of protesters shouted anti-Pyongyang slogans and held up signs demanding the beheading of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Despite initially disagreeing with the decision of a united ice hockey team, South’s coach Sarah Murray praised the association at a news conference on Monday.
'It is a tough situation to have our team be used for political reasons, but it's kind of something that's bigger than ourselves right now,' the Canadian said.
On Thursday, North Korea sent an unusual announcement to “all Koreans at home and abroad” to work towards a “breakthrough” in efforts to reunify with the South.
The message, delivered by the state media, added that Pyeongyang will “smash” impediments to reunifying the Korean Peninsula.
Closer ties between North and South
Recently, South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in championed closer relations with the North and called the games an “epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace”.
The division of the Korean Peninsula occurred after World War II, with the United States and the Soviet Union occupation of the two parts of the country.
North and South Korea remain technically at war after 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.
Military tension remains a fundamental obstacle for the improvement of Korean relations.
The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will take place between 9 and 25 February. The unified Korean team will open their group action against Switzerland on Feb. 10.