North and South Korea to unify teams at Beijing Olympics

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North and South Korea - still technically at war - have been bitter ideological and sporting rivals for more than 50 years. Yesterday they agreed to compete as a single team at the Asia Games in 2006 and at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The two ideological enemies have been building closer relations across the demilitarised zone, even as North Korea continues to confront the West with its nuclear weapons programmes and its suppression of human rights.

"We had discussed making a single team since we jointly marched in such international events six times," said Baek Sung-il, a spokesman for the South Korea Olympic Committee. "As exchanges between South and North Korea have been progressing, the mood was ripe for reaching such an agreement," he added.

The two Koreas, despite having marched together at several large-scale sporting events, including the Sydney and Athens Olympics, have not joined forces in such an overt fashion since the end of the Korean war in 1953.

For decades, the South has been braced for war with the paranoid and highly secretive Communist regime in the North, which is regarded by much of the international community as a pariah state. But cultural and economic exchanges between Seoul and Pyongyang have increased since a landmark summit in 2000 in the North Korean capital, and yesterday's announcement - long talked-of but never fully achieved - bears witness to this thawing in relations across the Demilitarised Zone.

"The atmosphere and the building in confidence and trust have been taken to a significant level, and that is why the North feels it can trust the South to provide a very fair and acceptable agreement," said Kim Sang-woo, secretary general of the Korean Olympic Committee.

Combining the two teams, however, will require approval from relevant sporting bodies, and this may prove hard to come by. Analysts also warned that agreements with North Korea often come to nothing because of the country's isolated political situation and secretive internal machinations. The state, led by its autucratic ruler Kim Jong Il - referred to until recently as the "Dear Leader" - is particularly sensitive to international pressure over its nuclear weapons programme.

Officials from both sides, represented by a vice-chairman of both national Olympic committees, are intending to meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesong in early December to hammer out specifics for a unified team. The town, situated just north of the Demilitarised Zone, has come to symbolise South Korean economic engagement with the North through various joint ventures in the area.

If the plans do go ahead, it will only be after a period of intense negotiations fraught with sticking points. The two sides have discussed teaming up on several previous occasions - experimental table tennis and football teams were formed for a short time in the early 1990s - but the attempts have always failed.

Last year, the two countries startled the sporting world by using only "Korea" as the official name for their teams in the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies in Athens. Not only did the two teams - dressed in matching blue jackets and white trousers - march side-by-side behind a sign that read only "Korea", the North and South Korean presidents of the Olympic committees also stood next to each other with their hands clasped in the air.

North Korea won five medals at the Games and South Korea won 30. A combined medal tally of 35 would have propelled "Team Korea" into seventh place in the medals list, below Japan but above France, Italy and Britain.