(ATTN: UPDATES with details in last 6 paras)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL/GANGNEUNG, Jan. 21 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) -- A North Korean delegation arrived in Gangnueng, an eastern South Korean city, Sunday to check the venues for its proposed art performances at next month's PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The trip came amid brisk inter-Korean contact on the North's participation in the Olympic Games to open in three weeks.
The seven-member team is led by Hyon Song-wol, head of the North's Samjiyon Orchestra, and known as one of the most influential women in the secretive communist nation.
She also serves as director of the Moranbong Band, the country's well-known all-female musical group, reportedly created at the order of leader Kim Jong-un. There's a rumor that she is an ex-girlfriend of Kim.
Hyon, wearing a dark coat and a fur muffler, arrived at Seoul Station around 10:22 a.m. and boarded a KTX bullet train bound for Gangneung, 260 kilometers east of the capital.
Asked about her impression of the trip here by a pool reporter of the Ministry of Unification press corps, she just smiled and didn't give an answer.
Hyon and her delegation members were tightly guarded by South Korean police and state intelligence officials, with an army of local and foreign media crowding the station to cover their visit.
It took about two hours for the North Koreans to reach Gangneung, the first leg of their two-day, two-stop visit.
They plan to inspect the stage, audio system and other conditions for the upcoming performance, discussing its schedule and program.
In Gangneung, the North Koreans will likely tour the Gangneung Arts Center and visit another candidate site in Seoul on Monday. The construction of the 998-seat Gangneung concert hall finished a months ago.
Earlier in the day, the North's delegation crossed the land border via the Gyeongui Line, becoming the first North Koreans to travel to the South since the launch of the Moon Jae-in administration in May last year.
It's also the first time that the inter-Korean route has been used since the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in early 2016.
Several South Korean officials greeted the North Koreans at the customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) office at Dorasan Station, just south of the border.
The North has agreed to join the Olympics slated for Feb. 9-25 and the 10-day Paralympics that start on March 9, which will be staged in the South's eastern towns of PyeongChang and Gangneung.
It plans to send a 140-member art performance group, consisting of an orchestra, singers and dancers, for concerts in Seoul and Gangneung.
The two Koreas will exchange visits of working-level officials later this week to continue consultations on issues related to the North's participation in the Olympics and the ensuing Paralympics.
A dozen South Korean officials are scheduled to make a three-day visit starting Tuesday to the Mount Kumgang area and Masikryong Ski Resort in the North's eastern area.
The North accepted the South's offer to send the advance team as part of its plan to stage a joint cultural event in the Mount Kumgang region, according to the Ministry of Unification. Their skiers will train together at the ski compound as well.
The North also informed the South of a plan to dispatch an eight-member delegation, led by Yun Yong-bok, a deputy director general at its sports ministry, on Thursday, it added.
Yun traveled to South Korea in 2014 for such an inspection before the North joined the Incheon Asian Games.
The North's team wants to look around Olympic facilities, such as stadiums, lodgings and the press center for three days.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Saturday the North will send 22 athletes to the PyeongChang Games in three sports -- skating, skiing and ice hockey.
The IOC also confirmed that two nations will also march together behind a single flag at the opening ceremony and field a unified women's hockey team in what it described as a "milestone."
"The Olympic spirit is about respect, dialogue and understanding," IOC President Thomas Bach said after a relevant meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. "The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean Peninsula and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope."
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