Mass welcome for N. Korea athletes in Pyongyang

SEOUL - North Koreans lined the streets of Pyongyang to welcome home their Asia Games athletes, state media said Monday, but there was no reported appearance by the communist country's sports-fanatic leader.

Top Workers' Party officials and military generals welcomed the athletes at the airport Sunday, the state media said, but they made no mention of leader Kim Jong-Un attending the event.

Kim has not been seen in public for more than a month, prompting speculation about his health. Top officials on a surprise visit to South Korea denied Sunday that there is anything wrong with Kim.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens came out onto the streets to greet the athletes who took part in the games in the rival South, the reports said.

The 150 athletes won 11 gold medals and 25 silver and bronze in their best Asian Games performance since 1990.

The North Koreans were widely cheered by South Korean crowds at the event in Incheon even though the two sides remain technically at war.

Each athlete left the plane at Pyongyang airport wrapped in a North Korean flag. The party brass and generals stood in line to individually great each competitor.

The North's women footballers who beat Japan 1-0 in the Asian Games final led the cavalcade and were received with rapture, according to the reports.

"The players received fervent welcome from hundreds of thousands of citizens in Pyongyang who lined the streets," the Korean Central News Agency said.

'Stormy cheers'

The mass welcome lasted for more than 10 kilometres (six miles), according to KCNA, adding that the "streets turned into a sea of flowers".

Nearly everyone in the crowds was seen carrying a bouquet of flowers. Some families keep plastic or paper flowers which they use when ordered to appear for such events.

When the parade reached the Keasonmun, Pyongyang's version of the Arc de Triomphe, "the crowd raised stormy cheers", KCNA said.

All the cars were emblazoned with portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, respectively the current leader's grandfather and father.

The athletes laid wreaths and "paid tribute" at the huge statues of the two Kims in the centre of the city, the reports said.

The ruling party's official newspaper Rodong Sinmun gave heavy coverage to the athletes with stories and pictures filling the first three pages of the paper.

"We warmly welcome our proud sons and daughters who made the dignity and strength of North Korean Juche well known," read the front-page headline. Juche is the North's hardline ideology of self-reliance.

The Rodong Sinmun attributed the country's Asian Games medals to Kim Jong-Un and his policy of putting emphasis on sport.

Despite their success at the Asian Games, North Korea's women footballers are banned from taking part in next year's World Cup in Canada after five players failed drug tests at the last World Cup in 2011.

North Korea is also in trouble with the International Gymnastics Federation.

Two days before the Asian Games started, the federation banned a North Korean gymnast who had lied about her age. It said the Pyongyang government submitted a fake passport for Cha Yong-Hwa.