SEOUL (Reuters) - A delegation of over 250 North Korean athletes, coaches and officials will take a rare flight south of the inter-Korean border to participate in the 17th Asian Games this month, hoping to raise the reclusive country’s profile on the international sporting stage.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is at the center of a state propaganda drive to turn the isolated country into a “sports superpower” and has rewarded medal-winning athletes with luxury apartments, entertained flamboyant NBA hall of famer Dennis Rodman, and even tried his hand at coaching.
“Supreme leader Kim Jong Un personally guided matches for examining the men’s and women’s soccer of the National Sports Team which will take part in the 17th Asian Games,” a North Korean Olympic Committee official said in a state media article last month.
“Our players’ participation in the 17th Asian Games offers an important occasion in improving the relations between the north and the south and removing distrust,” the official said.
Tensions between North and South Korea are high and the two states are still technically in a state of war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Talks between Pyongyang and Seoul are rare and local media coverage about North Korea’s participation in the Asian Games has largely centered around a decision by Pyongyang to send a group of female cheerleaders to accompany its athletes to the South.
A major issue of contention had been who will foot the bill for hosting the delegation from cash-strapped North Korea.
The South Korean government has said it will share some of the cost, but North Korea has since withdrawn its cheerleader offer, and accused Seoul of “abusing the Olympic idea for sinister political purposes.”
North Korea, also known by its official DPRK acronym, won three weightlifting gold medals and one bronze at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Weightlifting is a sport in which the isolated country has excelled, despite suffering from widespread malnutrition and occasional food shortages within which an ample supply of protein is a particular concern.
North Korean state propaganda has also focused on the overseas success of its female athletes, whom earlier this year it described as “enjoying the love and respect of the people as laudable daughters of the nation, and beautiful flowers of the times.”
North Korea’s women footballers are the favorites for gold in Incheon, west of Seoul, while Olympic weightlifing champions Om Yun Chol, Kim Un Guk and Rim Jong Sim will also be competing.
North Korea won six gold medals at the 2010 Guangzhou Games in China, including three in shooting, and will be targetting a top 10 finish in the medal table in Incheon.
North Korea’s top sports official, Kim Yong-hun, will lead the country’s 273-member delegation to the Games.
Editing by Peter Rutherford