Korean athletes come together Down Under
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- For years, South Korean judo star Jung Sung-sook averted her eyes when encountering athletes from communist North Korea at international events.
"We pretended not to see each other. We never acknowledged each other's presence," she said Wednesday upon arriving in Sydney.
Now, she's looking forward to giving them a hearty hello.
"Things have really changed -- people are really opening up," Jung said. "Now we say hello when we meet."
Separated in their own land by a fiercely guarded border, athletes from the two Koreas are mingling over kimchi at training tables Down Under.
No formal meetings have been arranged, but athletes from North and South Korea are to march together in Friday's Sydney Olympics opening ceremony under a single Korea flag for the first time since the peninsula was divided in 1945.
Encounters at training venues and at the Olympic Village's two dining halls are frequent -- and friendly, officials from both delegations say.
"Their meetings are always very warm," said Choi Eun-gi, an official with the South Korean delegation, which has nearly 400 athletes heading to Sydney.
Thirty-one athletes have arrived from communist North Korea, longtime political enemy of the capitalist South.
After five decades of enmity, relations began to thaw starting with the first-ever summit between the two countries' heads of state in June.
On Sunday, after intense talks brokered by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, officials from both delegations agreed the teams would march together in a powerful sign of Koreans' desire to reunify.
"It's a very important gesture to show to all the world the will of the two Koreas to be unified as soon as possible," Samaranch said.
Though they train separately, the two teams live within walking distance at the Olympic Village.
"When they meet at the training venues or in the village and dining hall, they say hello," said Moon Si Song, a physiotherapist with the North Korean delegation.
So far, athletes from the two Koreas have come together over one shared specialty: kimchi. The famed spicy side dish is flown in direct from Korea, one of the few foods imported for the games.
For Jung, a bronze medalist at the Atlanta Olympics, Sydney sets the stage for a reunion with North Korean athlete Kye Sun Hui.
In 1996, Kye, traveling overseas for the first time, landed at the judo facilities alone and without a training partner. Jung -- putting aside ideology and competition -- took Kye under her wing.
Kye went on to win the gold in another weight category.
"I was so happy for her when she won," Jung recalled, her face lighting up at the memory. "And she told me then that she was grateful to me."
Kye now calls her "older sister."
"And when we see each other again this time," Jung said, "I'm sure we'll be even happier to meet."