Seoul approves N.Korea women's hockey visit

Seoul (AFP) –


Seoul has granted rival North Korea's women's ice hockey team permission to play in the South next week, the Unification Ministry said Wednesday, a positive sign ahead of next year's Winter Olympics.

Teams from the North and South are due to face off against each other in division II group A of the women's world ice hockey championships, being held in the eastern city of Gangneung next week.

It is a test event for the Pyeongchang Games, which begin in less than 11 months' time.

The two Koreas remain technically in conflict after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and relations between them have plunged in recent months.

Seoul's permission is required for all northern visits to the South, and for all trips by its citizens to the nuclear-armed North.

"The visit to the South by the North Korean team was approved," the unification ministry, which oversees relations with Pyongyang, said in a statement.

The 30-member North Korean delegation will include 20 athletes and 10 coaches and support staff.

The rare trip south by athletes from the country augurs well for next year's Olympics, even though the team have already missed qualifying.

Pyongyang boycotted the 1988 Seoul Games, but Lee Hee-Beom, the chief organiser of next year's event, has urged it to take part in a "peace" Olympics.

The approval comes as South Korean women football team seeks to visit Pyongyang for a Women's Asian Cup qualifying group next month, with the two Korean rivals due to meet on April 7.

It would be the first official football match between the two Koreas in the North, apart from friendlies.

The South's football authorities are waiting for a document from Pyongyang reaffirming the safety of their players before the unification ministry will certify the trip, a Korea Football Association official told AFP.