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(5th LD) N. Korean Olympic athletes to use S. Korean plane to travel to PyeongChang

All Headlines 19:32 January 31, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES paras 1-9)

SEOUL/MASIKRYONG, North Korea Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- Ten North Korean Olympic athletes will board a South Korean chartered airplane on Thursday when it carries a South Korean delegation home after two days of joint ski training in the North ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Games, according to South Korean pool reporters on Wednesday.

The South's 45-member delegation, including two dozen skiers, arrived at the Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea on the Asiana Airlines jet for the training session.

The aircraft will carry 32 North Koreans, including 10 athletes in the disciplines of alpine and cross-country skiing and figure and short-track skating, when it returns to South Korea on Thursday, officials from the unification ministry said.

A total of 22 North Koreans will compete at the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Twelve ice hockey players have already come to the South.

Earlier in the day, the plane landed at Kalma Airport in the North's eastern city of Wonsan about one hour after it left Yangyang International Airport in Gangwon Province, according to officials here.

Ri Hang-jun, a director general at the North's sports ministry greeted the South Korean delegation on the airfield, according to the press pool. He asked South Korean reporters to "enjoy the Masikryong Ski Resort."

It is the first time that a South Korean airplane has used the North's former military airport.

On the North Korean slope, skiers from the South and the North mingled together in a one-hour-and-half training session although they didn't freely talk to each other, according to the pool report.

The trip came after the United States approved the flight despite its new sanctions on the nuclear-armed communist nation. The South Korean delegation is comprised of 24 skiers on the substitute roster for the national team, several coaches, support staff and the pool reporters.

A chartered Asiana Airlines jet leaves for North Korea from Yangyang International Airport in Gangwon Province, carrying a group of South Korean skiers, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Yonhap)

The inter-Korean ski training was agreed to in working-level talks between the two sides, but confirmation of the plan to transport the delegation by air was delayed, due to Seoul's consultations with Washington.

Last September, the Trump administration announced a set of sanctions that include banning vessels and aircraft that have visited North Korea from entering the U.S. within 180 days.

Seoul asked Washington to exempt the extraordinary flight from the restrictions for the inter-Korean program.

The South Korean government has stated that it won't hurt the international community's sanctions on the North in pushing for inter-Korean sports and cultural activities.

It has emphasized that inter-Korean reconciliation would help efforts to denuclearize the North and promote stability in Northeast Asia.

"There was concern from the U.S. and from the airline, as well, (in connection with sanctions)," Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman for the Ministry of Unification, said at a press briefing.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said the government has "smoothly" consulted with the U.S. Department of the Treasury for its consent on the exceptional case. "Currently, consultations are done in such a manner that operating the plane this time does not breach the sanctions."

An advance South Korean team visits the Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea in this file photo. (Yonhap)

Critics said the Kim Jong-un regime is apparently seeking the relaxation of sanctions via participation in the PyeongChang games and pre-Olympics events.

Another ministry official, who is leading the delegation, said he's aware of the worries.

"We will consider the concerns and expectations of our people and closely cooperate with neighboring countries," Lee Joo-tae, director general for its inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, told pool reporters shortly before departing from Yangyang.

He pointed out that this is a "very important" time for inter-Korean relations and stressed the importance of the two Koreas respecting each other and implementing bilateral agreements.

In this Joint Press Corps photo, South Korean skiers wave onboard a plane bound for North Korea on Jan. 31, 2018. (Yonhap)

On the itinerary in the North, Lee said his delegation will inspect the ski course on the first day, followed by taking part in alpine skiing/cross-country skiing friendly competitions and joint training Thursday.

Located on the outskirts of Wonsan, the luxury Masikryong resort opened at the end of 2013 amid reports that leader Kim Jong-un, known to have been educated in Switzerland, is keenly interested in skiing.

Earlier this week, the North abruptly informed the South that it would call off a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang slated for Feb. 4.

It appears to be displeased with South Korean news reports that criticized the plan to stage a military parade on the eve of the opening of the Olympics, according to officials and experts in Seoul.


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