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(LEAD) S. Korea and N. Korea invited to field joint team in table tennis

All Headlines 16:42 May 11, 2011

(ATTN: CHANGES dateline; UPDATES with comments by Korean officials in paras 9-12)

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands, May 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and North Korea have been invited to field a joint table tennis team at an upcoming international event designed to promote peace through sports, officials said.

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and the Monaco-based Peace and Sport Foundation jointly announced Tuesday that their Peace and Sport Table Tennis Tournament will invite 10 countries to "encourage dialogue and good relations" between states. It is set for Nov. 21-22 this year in Qatar. Players from different countries that have been historically at odds with each other will form doubles teams.

"Organized by the Qatar National Olympic Committee and the Qatar Tennis Table Association, under the leadership of the ITTF and the guidance of Peace and Sport, this is an unprecedented sports event that will break political tensions and unite nations in a way that only table tennis can," the ITTF said in a statement.

The two Koreas have been asked to field joint doubles squads, as have India and Pakistan, and the U.S. and Iran. Organizers said they hoped the event will turn athletes into "genuine ambassadors of global peace."

The Peace and Sport Foundation added, "Onlookers will include key government officials and diplomats from each of the competing nations, fostering political communication and relations at the highest level."

Qatar has also invited China, Japan and Russia. According to the ITTF, the competition will feature men's and women's singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

In table tennis, the Koreas last formed a joint team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba City, Japan, and won the gold in the women's team event.

Adham Sharara, president of the ITTF, said most states, including North Korea, said they'd like to participate in the event. He also said he plans to visit North Korea in June to try to persuade officials there to field doubles teams with South Korea.

Kim Choong-yong, vice chairman of Seoul-based Korea Table Tennis Association, said it would hold "a great significance" for forming inter-Korean doubles teams to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chiba City event.

"We will have to study the details, but since (Peace and Sport) will be an exhibition match, I don't foresee a major problem as long as North Korea agrees," Kim said. "There's really no reason for us to turn down this offer."

Ju Jong-chol, secretary general of the North Korean Table Tennis Association, said he felt the idea of promoting world peace through table tennis was "a good one."

"We haven't heard anything specific about how this event will be run," Ju added. "After learning all the details, we will look into whether or not to accept the invitation."

The Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, rather than a peace treaty. Their tense relations reached a low point last year following North Korea's attack on a South Korean warship and later shelling of a South Korean border island that claimed 50 lives.

Pyongyang has refused to apologize for these provocations, despite Seoul's repeated demands. The Lee Myung-bak administration here has said the North must first apologize for the attacks before its recent overtures for dialogue can be taken as sincere.

The Peace and Sport event harks back to the ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China three decades ago. A U.S. table tennis team traveled to China for exhibition matches in April 1971, amid escalating Cold War tensions. The trip helped open China and eventually led to a monumental visit the following year by U.S. President Richard Nixon to Beijing.
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