Asian Games: Smiles and scrums as North Korea flag goes up

Asian Games: Smiles and scrums as North Korea flag goes up
North Korean athletes watch a flag-hoisting ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games at the Athletes village in Incheon on September 18, 2014.

INCHEON, South Korea - North Korea's flag was raised Thursday at the Asian Games athletes' village as competitors from the reclusive state batted off journalists' questions with polite smiles and stony silence.

Normally anyone waving the North's flag or singing its national anthem in South Korea could face arrest under Seoul's strict national security law.

But the North Koreans belted out their anthem, "Aegukga", or Patriotic Song, as games officials from the South hoisted the flag in a ceremony in Incheon, along with the banners of China, Singapore, Thailand and Yemen.

North Korea's presence has been one of the main talking points ahead of the Asian Games, which officially open in Incheon on Friday.

Their athletes and officials, mobbed by journalists at the flag-raising ceremony, appeared to be under instruction to stay tight-lipped - and a couple of burly minders were on hand to fend off persistent reporters.

Dressed in pristine white blazers and vivid blue trousers, and all wearing obligatory pin badges featuring North Korea's dead leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the athletes responded to questions with polite smiles and total silence.

Only one official broke ranks, saying when asked how the delegation felt about the event: "Just look, you can see for yourself."

As the North Koreans made their way from the flag plaza to their accommodation block they were surrounded by a rolling maul of camaramen, photographers and reporters - but still kept mum.

The North Korean flag has already proved contentious at the Games, with organisers saying they will confiscate any found on South Koreans entering any of the venues.

Officials have also removed the North's flag from the streets around venues after anti-Pyongyang activists protested about having the North Korean emblem flying among them.

The North Korean flag is displayed along with other national flags at the official venues, and North Korean delegation members can bring their flags to events.

Apart from their brush with the media, the North Koreans seemed rather bemused by a breakdancing performance at the ceremony.

While the Singaporeans, Chinese, Thais and Yemenis smiled and took pictures as South Korean star Psy's hit "Gangnam Style" rocked out, the delegation from the North looked on blankly.

North Korea, who won six golds at the 2010 Asian Games, are sending 150 athletes to Incheon and almost as many many coaches and officials, one of the biggest delegations to the South since the Korean War was halted with an armistice in 1953.



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