INCHEON, South Korea (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye opened the Incheon Asian Games at a glittering, K-Pop inspired ceremony Friday as North Korean athletes received an unexpectedly warm welcome.
"I declare the opening of the 17th Asian Games," Park said simply, after athletes from 45 countries had filed into Incheon's purpose-built main stadium.
"Gangnam Style" singer Psy was set to close the spectacle, heralding the start of 15 days of competition with 9,500 athletes.
The ceremony's most touching moment came when the crowd bellowed their approval for the team from North Korea, with which South Korea technically remains at war.
The North's athletes and officials, dressed in pristine white blazers and blue trousers, managed only the slightest of grins as they paraded - in contrast to the enthusiasm of their welcome.
There were also big cheers for Japan and China, allaying fears the hosts' neighbours could get a frosty reception because of tensions over Beijing's long-standing support for Pyongyang and Japanese colonial rule in Korea.
The show to mark the start of one of the world's biggest sporting events, themed around the concept of "One Asia" united as a family, had begun with a blast of high-octane K-Pop from boy band Exo.
The 17th Asiad includes the full Olympic programme plus Asian favourites like kabaddi and wushu, making for a packed schedule of 36 sports with 439 gold medals on offer.
Organisers were hoping the ceremony can create a much-needed buzz around the Games after slow ticket sales, just 18 percent early this week, generated an air of apathy.
But there were rows and rows of empty seats in the stands of the 61,000-capacity stadium for the opening ceremony.
Many of the matches so far in football, the only competition to start before the official opening, have been nearly devoid of fans with barely 100 at Jordan's win over United Arab Emirates on Thursday night.
The mayor of South Korea's third city has admitted that Incheon, which has built 17 new venues, is in financial trouble because of the cost of hosting the Games.
But Korean spirits will rise if favourite Jung Jee Hae wins the Games' first gold in the women's 10m air pistol on Saturday, when full competition starts.
South Korea are looking to consolidate second spot in the medals table behind China, who swept a record 199 gold medals and 416 overall at Guangzhou 2010.