Basketball diplomacy: ROK teams arrive in Pyongyang
2018-07-04 10:44:00

Members of the ROK men's basketball team are greeted by employees upon their arrival at Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang on Tuesday. YONHAP VIA REUTERS

SEOUL - A high-level delegation from the Republic of Korea arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday with dozens of basketball players as the DPRK's top leader Kim Jong-un's favorite sport becomes the latest effort at athletic diplomacy between the neighbors.

The delegations were composed of 50 male and female basketball players, five government delegates, 15 supporting government staff, 10 reporters, 20 camera journalists and one sportscaster.

ROK's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon led the group of 50 male and female players, in the first visit to Pyongyang by an official from the ROK since Kim and US President Donald Trump's landmark summit in Singapore last month.

"We are proud that sports are taking the initiative in opening the road for... peace," said Won Kil-u, vice-sports minister of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as he greeted the delegation at Pyongyang's Sunan airport.

Cho said he was "overcome with emotions", adding he conveyed warm greetings from the ROK public and their hope for reconciliation and cooperation, according to a media pool report.

Sporting cooperation helped spark the current diplomatic thaw between the two countries - who are still technically at war - after the DPRK sent a high-level delegation and athletes to the Winter Olympics in the ROK in February.

Recently the two neighbors announced they would field joint teams in three sports - canoeing, rowing and women's basketball - at the upcoming Asian Games.

Cho told journalists he hoped the games would "further enhance peace on the Korean Peninsula".

Basketball fan Kim - who has met former NBA star Dennis Rodman several times in Pyongyang - reportedly expressed his enthusiasm for basketball exchanges at a landmark summit with the ROK President Moon Jae-in in April.

The last basketball friendly took place in 2003 in Pyongyang when a gym bankrolled by the ROK's Hyundai business group opened in the DPRK capital.

In that match, the home team, led by Ri Myong-hun - who, at 2.35 meters was described as the world's tallest player - routed the ROK side 86-57.

The ROK's Hur Jae, who captained his side during the defeat, is now returning to Pyongyang as a coach.

"I hope to see Ri and share soju (Korean traditional liquor) with him," he told journalists.

Cho earlier declined to provide details of his itinerary, including whether he plans to meet Kim during his stay in Pyongyang.

It is also unclear whether Cho will meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will leave for Pyongyang on Thursday to flesh out a bare-bones nuclear agreement between Trump and Kim.

Trump has boasted that a statement he signed with Kim in Singapore last month resolved the old foes' nuclear stand-off, but Pompeo has been tasked with nailing down details.

The basketball teams will play a total of four matches, and return home on Friday.

Source:China Daily Editor:Amanda