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(News Focus) Asian Games to provide another stage for Koreas to show unity

2018/06/18 20:35

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SEOUL, June 18 (Yonhap) -- The 18th Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang in Indonesia this August will provide yet another stage for South and North Korea to show their sporting unity, as they agreed on Monday to march behind one flag at the event's opening ceremony.

At the inter-Korean sports talks at the border village of Panmunjom on Monday, the Koreas agreed to have a joint march during the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony in Jakarta on Aug. 18. It will be the 11th such occasion at an international multi-sport competition and will follow the joint march at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February this year.

Given the general air of detente on the Korean Peninsula this year -- and the fact that the two sides earlier agreed in principle to have the joint march at the Asian Games -- Monday's decision seemed like a mere formality.

In this file photo from Feb. 9, 2018, athletes from South Korea and North Korea march together behind the Korean Unification Flag, held by Won Yun-jong of the South (R) and Hwang Chung-gum of the North, during the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from Feb. 9, 2018, athletes from South Korea and North Korea march together behind the Korean Unification Flag, held by Won Yun-jong of the South (R) and Hwang Chung-gum of the North, during the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul. (Yonhap)

The Koreas held their first joint march at an international sporting competition at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games. They repeated that at the 2002 Asian Games, 2003 Asian Winter Games, 2003 Summer Universiade, 2004 Summer Olympics, 2005 Asian Winter Games, 2006 Winter Olympics, 2006 Asian Games and 2007 Asian Winter Games.

After a sustained period of tension that put virtually all exchanges -- let alone those for sports -- on hold, the Koreas were back together in time for PyeongChang 2018, the first Winter Olympics to take place in South Korea.

As recently as last fall, the prospects of even having North Korean athletes in PyeongChang appeared grim, in light of Pyongyang's nuclear test and missile launches. But at the dawn of the new year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wished PyeongChang a successful Winter Olympics and offered to send his athletes across the heavily fortified border.

In a matter of days, sports officials from the Koreas began discussions on how to ensure North Korea's presence in PyeongChang. And by Jan. 9, they reached an agreement on North Korea's participation.

Eleven days later, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave its blessing, granting North Korean athletes special quotas to compete in PyeongChang and greenlighting the formation of an unprecedented, unified women's hockey team.

Throughout PyeongChang 2018, the women's hockey team, despite losing all four of its games, was hailed as a symbol of peace and Olympic ideals. IOC President Thomas Bach repeatedly said how touching it was to watch athletes from the two Koreas march in together, with South Korean male bobsledder Won Yun-jong and North Korean female hockey player Hwang Chung-gum carrying the Korean Unification Flag -- which bears an image of the peninsula in blue against a white background.

The flag will once again fly high for the Koreas, who have been able to maintain positive vibes from PyeongChang, especially after the April summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim.

In this photo provided by the sports ministry, representatives from South Korea (R) and North Korea shake hands before the start of their sports talks at the Peace House, located on the southern part of the truce village in Panmunjom, on June 18, 2018. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by the sports ministry, representatives from South Korea (R) and North Korea shake hands before the start of their sports talks at the Peace House, located on the southern part of the truce village in Panmunjom, on June 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

The two sides will have to determine who will be the flagbearers. By rotation, it will likely be a female athlete from the South and a male competitor from the North sharing the duty.

The Koreas also agreed on Monday that they will continue their efforts to form joint teams at the Asian Games. They will engage the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which oversees the Asian Games, and other international sports federations in discussions over the matter.

Earlier this year, about a half dozen South Korean national sports federations expressed interest in joining forces with North Korea at the Asian Games. And at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Sweden in May, teams from the South and the North were combined before they were to play each other in the quarterfinals, later competing against Japan as one team.

But the momentum for joint Korean teams in Indonesia appeared to hit a snag only a few days after the table tennis competition, when the OCA balked at granting the Koreas extra roster spots.

Seoul had been hoping it would be able to put together unified teams in several sports without having to cut South Korean athletes to make room for North Koreans.

The one event in which no such compromise may be necessary is dragon boat racing, a canoe discipline. The Korea Canoe Federation (KCF) in Seoul has begun its Asian Games trials and will select eight paddlers, with hopes of having eight more from north of the border.

The KCF has said the unified dragon boat team won't have to come at the expense of any current athletes because both Koreas don't have full-time dragon boat paddlers and the joint team will be formed from scratch.

If materialized, the unified dragon boat team will only be the second pan-Korean squad at an international multi-sport event, after the women's hockey team at PyeongChang 2018.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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