In a rare sight, North Korean flags flew in South Korea yesterday as the South prepared for the first Winter Olympics on its soil that has brought a temporary lull in tensions surrounding the North's nuclear weapons program.
The Olympic village in Gangneung turned into a selfie site as volunteer workers posed under a North Korean flag that has been raised in the country for the first time since a hockey tournament in April last year.
North Korean flags were also raised at the other athletes' village in Pyeongchang and stadiums in both Pyeongchang and Gangneung, where North Korean athletes are expected to compete during the Feb. 9-25 games, according to Pyeongchang's Olympic Organizing Committee.
The flags' hoisting came hours before 10 North Korean skiers and skaters arrive on a rare flight between the war-separated rivals. North Korea is sending a total of 22 athletes, and the rest 12 all-female hockey players have already been practicing in the South with South Korean teammates for a unified team competing at the games..
"If feels amazing [that they are coming]," said Choi So Eun, a college student who volunteered for translation and other work during the Olympics, after taking a selfie with a fellow volunteer under a North Korean flag at the Gangneung athletes' village.
"I thought only high-level officials in South Korea could see a North Korean in person, but I think I can see them here so I'm excited," Choi said.
Another volunteer, Choi Sangyoung, said he hopes that the Olympics would help ease animosities between the rivals and lead them toward a "peaceful and good" direction.
South Korea is preparing to host hundreds of other North Koreans during the games, including a 230-member cheering group and a 140-strong art troupe who are due to arrive next week. The Koreas have agreed to jointly march under a single "unification" flag during the opening ceremony.
The Koreas' Olympics-inspired reconciliation steps came after an extended period of animosity and diplomatic stalemate over North Korea's advancing nuclear and missiles programs. Seoul sees the developments as an opportunity to revive meaningful communication with Pyongyang. Some outside experts say the North may aim to use improved ties with South Korea as a way to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions.
North Korean flags also flew during the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, the last time the North sent a big delegation to a sporting event across the border. Displaying North Korean flags in public is banned under South Korea's anti-Pyongyang security law, but the South has allowed exceptions when it hosts North Koreans for international events.
Pyeongchang, a relatively small ski resort town, will host the ski, snowboard and sliding events during the Olympics. Gangneung, a larger coastal city about an hour's drive away, will host the skating, hockey and curling events.
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