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(LEAD) S. Korean officials, athletes visit N. Korea before friendly basketball matches

All News 15:40 July 03, 2018

(ATTN: CHANGES dateline; RECASTS headline, throughout with updated info)

PYONGYANG/SEOUL, July 3 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) -- A delegation of South Korean officials, athletes and media people visited North Korea on Tuesday to participate in inter-Korean friendly basketball matches amid a thaw in inter-Korean relations.

The 100-strong delegation arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan airport at around 11:10 a.m. on two military planes. It was a little over 60 minutes after they took off from an airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon leads the delegation comprised of male and female basketball players, coaches, staff members and media people. They were greeted by North Korean officials, including Vice Sports Minister Won Kil-u.

"I have met South Korean people on several occasions already since the New Year's Day speech by our chairman (Kim Jong-un). I can feel the affection and aspiration for unification are getting stronger as I meet more," Won told the delegation, according to pool reports.

"I feel proud that sports are taking the lead in opening the grand path toward reconciliation, peace and prosperity between the North and the South," he added.

Cho shared the view, saying that he came to the North with reconciliation and cooperation in mind. He added that his delegation will make it clear to the North Korean people during its stay in Pyongyang.

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The two Koreas plan to hold four basketball matches in Pyongyang on Wednesday and Thursday. They will include games between teams comprised of a mixture of South and North Korean athletes.

This is the fourth time in history that the two Koreas have held friendly basketball matches. The last such games were played in October 2003.

Cho earlier expressed hope that such a non-political sports event would help advance bilateral ties between the two Koreas.

"We are leaving to join the unification basketball matches to be held for the first time in 15 years, an event which is part of efforts to follow up on the Panmunjom Declaration," Cho told reporters before leaving for Pyongyang.

He referred to the agreement the leaders of the two Koreas adopted after their April summit.

"I hope that as the PyeongChang Winter Olympics served as foundation for peace, the unification basketball matches will serve as a chance to advance peace on the Korean Peninsula," he added.

Cho said that it is particularly meaningful in that the games will be held around Wednesday when the two Koreas will commemorate the announcement of their joint communique in 1972.

The matches were arranged after high-level officials from the two Koreas met in June to discuss sports exchanges in line with the spirit of the April 27 summit, where their leaders promised to expand cross-border exchanges and contacts.

Inter-Korean relations have been thawing since early this year when the North sent athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics hosted by the South.

The rapprochement also led to summit meetings between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April and May.

The inter-Korean basketball matches coincide with a planned trip by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later this week to work out details for dismantling the North's nuclear weapons program.

His trip to Pyongyang is the first of its kind since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim met in Singapore last month. Kim affirmed his commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, other information on the schedules of the delegation has yet to be disclosed. Cho, who handles inter-Korean affairs, earlier declined to provide details of his itinerary, including whether he plans to meet the North Korean leader during his stay in North Korea.

The delegation is to return home on Friday.

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