South Korean skiers in rare flight to North Korea ahead of Winter Olympics

A delegation of South Korean skiers flew to North Korea to train at the Masikryong ski resort with their rivals. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - A group of South Korean skiers flew to North Korea on Wednesday (Jan 31) ahead of the Winter Olympics to train with their rivals, on a rare direct flight between the neighbours after Washington exempted it from sanctions.

It is the latest in a flurry of cross-border trips in the run-up to next month's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which have seen an apparent rapprochement on the peninsula after months of high tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

The 45-strong delegation, including 31 athletes - none of them slated to take part in the Games - travelled to the North's Masikryong ski resort, a pet project of leader Kim Jong Un.

With few North Koreans able to ski on a regular basis, Masikryong is notable for its largely empty main slopes, and is sometimes visited by Western tourists with a taste for the unusual.

The South Korean group flew to Kalma airport in Wonsan, on the North's east coast, on board a chartered Asiana Airlines plane.

Under US sanctions against Pyongyang, any aircraft is banned from landing in the United States within 180 days of taking off from North Korea.

Seoul's Unification Ministry "completed coordination with the United States to have the plane exempt from sanctions", spokesman Baik Tae Hyun told journalists.

The plane flew out to the sea before heading north in order to avoid crossing the heavily fortified land border.

The South Koreans are due to return by the same route on Thursday, accompanied by North Korean athletes who will take part in the Games.

Last week, 12 North Korean women ice hockey players arrived in the South to form a unified Korean team, the first to compete internationally for 27 years.

At rare high-level talks with the South last month, North Korea agreed to send athletes, supporters, an art troupe and observers to the Games, easing concerns over safety.

But critics say the North is seeking to gain advantage from its participation, and reports say it will mark the anniversary of the founding of its regular military with a major military parade a day before the opening ceremony.

Earlier this week, Pyongyang unilaterally called off a joint cultural event slated for Feb 4 at the North's scenic Mount Kumgang, underscoring the fragility of the agreements.

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