South Korean team in North on basketball diplomacy mission

Members of the South Korean men's basketball team being welcomed at the Koryo hotel in Pyongyang yesterday. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said he hoped the games would "further enhance peace on the Korean peninsula".
Members of the South Korean men's basketball team being welcomed at the Koryo hotel in Pyongyang yesterday. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said he hoped the games would "further enhance peace on the Korean peninsula".PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • A high-level South Korean delegation arrived in Pyongyang yesterday with dozens of basketball players, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's favourite sport becomes the latest effort at athletic diplomacy between the neighbours.

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

Sporting cooperation helped spark the current diplomatic thaw between the Koreas - which are still technically at war - after the North sent a high-level delegation and athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.

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

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

Basketball fan Kim - who has met former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman several times in Pyongyang - reportedly expressed his enthusiasm for basketball exchanges at a landmark summit with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in in April.

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

In that match, North Korea, led by Ri Myong Hun - who, at 2.35m, was described as the world's tallest player - routed South Korea 86-57.

South Korea'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.

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

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

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

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

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2018, with the headline 'South Korean team in North on basketball diplomacy mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe