N. Korea delegates arrive in South for pre-Olympics inspection

North Korean delegates arrived in South Korea on Sunday to prepare for cultural performances during next month's Winter Olympics, in the first visit by Pyongyang officials to the South for four years.

Television footage showed seven officials led by Hyon Song-Wol, the leader of the North's popular Moranbong girl band, crossing the heavily-fortified border by bus before arriving at Seoul train station about an hour later.

The stony-faced officials, surrounded by hundreds of Seoul police officers, then boarded a train to the eastern city of Gangneung, where one of two planned concerts is due to be held.

Hyon, a star singer and also the leader of the 140-member Samjiyon Orchestra chosen to visit the South, left the station in Gangneung without talking to throngs of journalists.

After months of high tensions over the North's missile and nuclear tests, the neighbours agreed this month that North Korean athletes, cheerleaders, artistic troupes and other delegates would attend the Games beginning in the South's ski resort of Pyeongchang on February 9.

The International Olympic Committee on Saturday endorsed the deal, saying the North would send 22 athletes in sports ranging from figure skating to short-track speed skating.

"It marks the opening of the door towards peaceful coexistence and peaceful cooperation forged through sports," Seoul's sports minister Do Jong-Hwan, who attended Saturday's meeting, told reporters on returning to Seoul.

The two nations also agreed to march together at the opening ceremony under a unification flag -- a pale blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula -- and to form a joint women's ice hockey team.

The South's government, facing mounting public criticism of the sporting rapprochement, defended it Sunday as "an investment for a peaceful future".

The orchestra led by Hyon will give two concerts -- one in the capital Seoul and another in Gangneung -- during the Olympics.

Seoul will also send skiers to the North's Masikryong ski resort for joint training with North Korean counterparts, and hold a joint cultural event in the scenic Mount Kumgang area north of the border.

The delegation led by Hyon will inspect venues in Gangneung on Sunday and those in the capital Seoul on Monday before returning to the North the same day.

Another team will visit the South this week to check logistics for North Korean athletes, while Seoul will send its own officials to the North's ski resort to inspect the venue.

- 'Peace Olympics' -

Seoul's government and the organisers hope that the Games, which they have promoted as the "Peace Olympics", can ease tensions that soared to new heights in recent months.

The North last year staged its most powerful nuclear test and test-fired long-range missiles believed capable of reaching the US mainland.

Its ruler Kim Jong-Un also traded colourful personal insults and threats of war with US President Donald Trump, sparking fears of another conflict on the peninsula once devastated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The South's President Moon Jae-In has tried to use the Winter Games as an opportunity to defuse tension, even asking the US to postpone an scheduled joint military exercise during the event -- a request Washington accepted.

But the developments have angered many South Koreans, who see excessive concessions to a neighbour that regularly threatens the South.

The deal over the unified women's ice hockey team brought criticism that Seoul is depriving some of its own players of the chance to compete in the Olympics for the sake of politics.

Tens of thousands have signed online petitions on the presidency's website urging Moon to scrap the plan.

Moon's office said Sunday it was aware of the criticism but defended the moves as aimed at forging peace and creating a much-needed buzz over an event that has so far failed to stir much excitement.

"Only a month or two ago, the Korean peninsula was faced with unprecedented fears of war following the North's missile and nuclear tests," his office said, adding many nations had questioned whether it would be safe to send athletes.

"But the North's participation in the event gave us confidence that we could at least hold the event in peace," it said in a statement, describing efforts to ensure North's participation as an "investment for a peaceful future".

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