GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Ten North Korean skaters and skiers arrived in rival South Korea on Thursday to participate in this month's Winter Olympics, which has brought a temporary lull in tensions over the North's nuclear weapons program.
The North Koreans are the second and final batch of 22 athletes from their country who have won special entries from the International Olympic Committee for the Feb. 9-25 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. A dozen North Korean female hockey players came last week to form a joint team with South Korean athletes, the first unified Korean team in the Olympics. North Korea originally had no athletes accredited to play in the games.
A 32-member North Korean delegation including the 10 athletes, their coaches and Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U arrived in South Korea by air. They flew on a South Korean flight that also brought back South Korean non-Olympic skiers who had visited a North Korean ski resort this week. It is extremely unusual for North Koreans to travel aboard a South Korean plane, with most past visits, including the hockey players' arrival, made across the heavily fortified land border.
Greeted by a barrage of camera flashes, the North Koreans — men dressed in navy blue coats and women in red coats, both wearing fur hats — didn't speak much at the South Korean airport and later at the athletes' village in the eastern city of Gangneung. But some smiled and waved their hands to journalists at the athletes' village. One said, "Nice to meet you!"
The 10 athletes are to compete in alpine and cross-country skiing, figure skating and short-track speed skating events in the Olympics.
The Koreas have been planning several conciliatory gestures during the games, including having their athletes parade together with a single "unification flag" depicting their peninsula during the opening ceremony. Another rare sight on Thursday was North Korean flags that began flying in Olympic villages and stadiums in Pyeongchang and Gangneung, something that normally wouldn't be tolerated in a country with a strict anti-North Korea security law still in effect.
South Korea sees the Olympics as an opportunity to revive meaningful communication with North Korea after a period of animosity and diplomatic stalemate over the North's nuclear and missile programs. Some outside experts say the North may aim to use improved ties with South Korea as a way to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions.
"It feels amazing (that they are coming)," said Choi So Eun, a college student who volunteered for translation and other work during the Olympics, after taking a selfie with a fellow volunteer under a North Korean flag at the Gangneung athletes' village.
"I thought only high-level officials in South Korea could see a North Korean in person, but I think I can see them here so I'm excited," Choi said.
Earlier Thursday, the South Korean non-Olympic skiers practiced and participated in friendly competitions with North Korean skiers at the North's Masik ski resort at the end of a two-day visit. They returned home aboard a chartered South Korean flight together with the 32-member North Korean delegation.
"More than anything, it's meaningful that the joint training session at the Masik ski resort was held in the way the South and North had agreed to," said Lee Joo-tae, an official from Seoul's Unification Ministry who accompanied the South Korean delegation. "It's also meaningful that we were able to come back with North Korean athletes on the same plane."
Next week, North Korea is to send a 230-member cheering group, a 140-strong art troupe, taekwondo demonstrators and journalists as part of its Olympic delegation. The last time North Korea sent a big delegation to South Korea was for the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, just west of Seoul.
Pyeongchang, a relatively small ski resort town, will host the ski, snowboard and sliding events during the Olympics. Gangneung, a larger coastal city about an hour's drive away, will host the skating, hockey and curling events.