Table tennis: Tensions put aside as North Korea beat South for gold

PARIS (AFP) - North Korea saw off a spirited comeback by South Korea to claim the mixed doubles title in a politically-charged final at the World Table Tennis Championships in Paris on Saturday.

But despite the ongoing tensions between the two nations, heightened by North Korea's nuclear test in February and further strained by reports of the North launching three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan earlier on Saturday, the neighbouring countries came together in perfect harmony in the French capital as Kim Hyok Bong and Kim Jong fended off a dogged recovery by Lee Sangsu and Park Youngsook to prevail 11-6, 11-8, 11-3, 6-11, 8-11, 11-7.

For North Korea, who exchanged cordial handshakes with their opponents both prior to and after the match, it was a first world title since Pak Yung Sun won the second of two successive singles crowns in 1977.

"We have achieved a quite unexpected result and I am very happy to have won the title and bring pleasure to (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un and my people," said Kim Hyok Bong, whose sentiments were echoed by that of his playing partner.

Meanwhile, defeated finalist Lee Sangsu struggled to hide his disappointment.

"We hoped the result would be better but it was still a great experience for the team," he said.

Pressed about the political strife between the countries, the vice-president of the (South) Korea Table Tennis Association, Park Do Cheon, intervened, replying: "We are sportsmen and I have nothing to say about the politics. We are participating as table tennis players and officials and the table tennis family. I really congratulate our brothers from North Korea (on their win)."

The rival nations had already met on two prior occasions during the competition, with Kim Hyok Bong and Kim Jong edging a tight contest with the South's Cho Eonrae and Yang Haeun in the quarters after Park and Yang got the better of the North's Ri Mi Gyong and Ri Myong Sun in the women's doubles.

"It is heart-warming to see players from (North) Korea and (South) Korea competing against each other with full respect at the World Championships," said International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) President Adham Sharara.

"I still remember in November 2011 when players from both countries played side by side in the 'Peace Cup' in Doha.

"I am very proud that the ITTF is a positive catalyst to bring nations closer together." In two weeks' time the ITTF will discover whether the International Olympic Committee has decided to approve their proposal to add a mixed doubles event to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games programme.

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