South Korean women ice-hockey team members attend an inaugural ceremony ahead of 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in Seoul, South Korea, January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
SEOUL, January 25 (Reuters) - A delegation of North Korean officials and ice hockey players crossed the heavily guarded border into South Korea on Thursday for joint Olympics training, as Pyongyang called for all Koreans to seek unification of the two nations.
The group included 12 North Korean players who will form a combined women's ice hockey team with their southern counterparts at next month's Winter Olympics in the South Korean mountain resort of Pyeongchang.
Stepping off a bus after driving through large gates on the border, the athletes ignored questions as they were mobbed by throngs of media.
They wore puffy winter jackets in the white, blue, and red colours of North Korea's flag, with "DPR Korea" emblazoned on the back, referring to the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
After going through South Korean checkpoints at the border, the team traveled to a national training centre in Jincheon, 90 km (56 miles) south of Seoul.
Under an agreement worked out during the first official talks between the two Koreas in two years, the joint team will wear unity jerseys and march under a unified peninsula flag at the Games' opening ceremony on February 9.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korea sent a rare announcement addressed to "all Koreans at home and abroad", saying they should make a "breakthrough" for unification without the help of other countries, its state media said.
All Koreans should "promote contact, travel, cooperation between North and South Korea" while adding Pyongyang will "smash" all challenges against reunification of the Korean peninsula.
The announcement, issued after a joint meeting of government and political parties, added Koreans should try to ease military tensions and create a peaceful climate on the Korean peninsula.
North and South Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. Tensions escalated dramatically last year as the regime of Kim Jong Un stepped up its programme aimed at developing a missile capable of striking the United States with a nuclear warhead.
PEACE OR PROPAGANDA?
Some South Korean opposition politicians and conservatives have criticized Pyongyang’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games, saying Kim was using North Korea's involvement for his own purposes.
Many other South Korea welcomed the North's participation, but complained that the unified women's ice hockey team - the only such joint team to be formed - was unfair to the players.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence plans to use his attendance at the Games to try to counter what he sees as Kim's efforts to "hijack" the games with a propaganda campaign, a White House official said on Tuesday.
Washington has been driving a tightening of sanctions on isolated North Korea and on Wednesday imposed fresh sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships. It also urged China and Russia, North Korea's main allies, to expel North Koreans raising funds for the programmes.
The South Korean government has rejected criticism that the games had been hijacked by North Korea, saying the event will help defuse tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programme.
Military tension on the Korean peninsula was a "fundamental obstacle" for the improvement of inter-Korean relations and unification, the North's official news agency said in its statement on Thursday.
It added joint military drills with "outside forces" has shown to be unhelpful for the development of relations between North and South Korea.
South Korea successfully pressed the United States to delay large-scale annual drills involving the two countries troops until after the Olympics, but Washington officials have rejected the idea of a permanent halt to the exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its missile and nuclear weapons tests.