Seoul: A group of South Korean skiers flew to North Korea on Wednesday ahead of the Winter Olympics to train with their rivals, on a rare direct flight after Washington exempted it from sanctions.
It was the latest in a flurry of cross-border trips in the run-up to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which have seen a rare apparent rapprochement on the peninsula after months of high tensions over the North’s nuclear programme.
The 45-strong delegation, including 24 skiers — 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”, said spokesman Baik Tae-Hyun.
The plane flew out to sea before heading north to avoid crossing the heavily fortified land border.
The South Koreans are due to return by the same route on Thursday, accompanied by 10 North Korean skiers and skaters who will take part in the Games.
A total of 32 North Koreans will be flying with the South Koreans, according to a joint pool report.
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 earlier in January, 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. 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 February 4 at the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang resort, underscoring the fragility of the agreements.