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N. Korean Athletes Arrive in Japan for Winter Asian Games - 2003-01-28

A contingent of athletes from North Korea has arrived in Japan to participate in the Winter Asian Games. It is the first time the North Koreans are joining the winter version of the regional sports event since 1990.

More than 50 North Korean athletes and officials flew into Japan's Narita Airport from Pyongyang on Tuesday.

For a while, it did not look like the North Koreans would be participating in the Asian Winter games. Pyongyang failed to get its application in to organizers by the December 31 deadline, but the Japanese gave them extra time.

North Korea has indicated it will participate in only three sports - short-track speed skating, figure skating and women's ice hockey. The North Korean delegation is composed of 29 athletes and 22 officials. By comparison, Pyongyang sent more than 300 athletes to this year's Asian Summer Games in South Korea, which marked the first time that the communist North took part in an international sporting event hosted by the South.

The Japanese have designated secondary schools to cheer for each of the 28 countries participating in the one-week event in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan. However, the schoolchildren assigned to cheer for North Korea won't be required to mention the country's name nor will they be given North Korean flags to wave.

That reflects the state of tension between the two countries - which have never had diplomatic relations. Tokyo and Pyongyang have a simmering dispute concerning the fate of Japanese kidnapped decades ago by North Korean spies. There is also the matter of North Korea's nuclear weapons development program.

Officials of the Fifth Winter Asian Games say they plan to deploy a total of 10,000 guards and officials to deal with unexpected incidents - including possible protests against North Korea.

Nearly 1,100 athletes, in total, are expected to compete in the games, which officially begin on Sunday. However, North Korea's women's ice hockey team will meet Kazakhstan in Thursday's opening game, two days before the opening ceremony.