Dancing in the streets with North Korean athletes

Hwang Sunghee
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North Korean athletes arrive at the Olympic Village in Gangneung on February 8, 2018, ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games

North and South Koreans danced in the streets on Thursday as 22 North Korean athletes were welcomed to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The 22 are taking part in the Olympics following a thaw in inter-Korean relations and include figure skaters, ice hockey players, cross country and Alpine skiers.

The athletes, accompanied by other North Korean officials and band made up of around 80 North Korean cheerleaders attended a welcoming ceremony at the Olympic Village in Gangneung, the venue for all ice events at the Games.

After a stiff and formal start, the mood eased when the dance band struck up a few tunes.

"I was a little scared because they were just clapping and so serious in the beginning," said 15-year-old South Korean volunteer Jeon Moon-kyung. "But later they enthusiastically asked us to dance together."

Her friend Choi Myo-seon added: "For a moment, it felt as if the wall between us had been melted away."

As Pyongyang's national anthem blared across the venue, the North Korean flag was hoisted into the air, fluttering against the wind.

The Pyeongchang Winter Games -- which begin Friday -- have triggered an apparent rapprochement on the divided peninsula, where tensions have been high over the nuclear-armed North's weapons ambitions.

The welcoming ceremony included performances by South and North Korean groups which drew contrasting reactions from the North's athletes.

As the South's break dancing group B-Boy jovially jumped into the crowd of North Korean athletes, they remained stiff, clapping passively and giving occasional smiles.

But the scene shifted when the North's band, dressed in a red and white uniform and each equipped with an instrument from the clarinet, trombone to the tambourine.

- Really having fun -

By the time the band was onto their third song, the athletes, standing in a line facing the cheerleaders, were dancing among themselves, later inviting South Korean volunteers to join them.

The athletes, faces softening with excitement, appeared to be really having fun, said South Korean volunteers who later formed a circle with the North Koreans.

The band's performance ended with the North Korean song "Nice to meet you" -- one of the most well known northern music in the South -- and the sprightly cheerleaders marched out after smiling and waving at the onlookers.

Amid the thaw in inter-Korean ties, the two Koreas held a rare high-level meeting last month and the North's ceremonial head of state is due to arrive Friday, the highest-level Pyongyang official ever to visit the South.

South Korea's unification ministry said Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, a senior member of the ruling Workers' Party, will also be part of the delegation.

But critics in the South allege the North has been allowed to hijack the Pyeongchang Games, dubbing them the Pyongyang Olympics instead.