N. Korea in focus as biggest Paralympics opens


Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP)

North Korea's athletes took centre-stage as the Winter Paralympics opened in South Korea on Friday with a glittering ceremony after a rapid round of diplomacy hit dizzying heights.

After spectacular cultural and dance performances, cross-country skiers Kim Jong Hyon and Ma Yu Chol entered as North Korea's first Winter Paralympians as the world digests the news US President Donald Trump has agreed to meet Kim Jong Un.

The wheelchair-bound skiers appeared at the same temporary stadium in Pyeongchang, about 30 miles (50 kilometres) from the heavily fortified inter-Korean border, where Kim Jong Un's sister attended the opening of last month's Winter Olympics.

It proved to be the trigger for a series of conciliatory steps between the two Koreas, who remain technically at war, culminating in Thursday's announcement at the White House.

North Korea's first Winter Paralympians did not appear alongside South Korea's team, as happened at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, after a row over the blue-and-white Korean unification flag.

North Korea pulled out of the joint march after South Korea decided to remove islands claimed by Japan from the flag, which depicts the Korean peninsula.

Both teams appeared separatedly under their own countries' flags at the parade during the opening ceremony.

But the disagreement is considered a minor sticking point after what has been a swift thaw between the neighbours, starting with North Korea's decision in January to participate in the Olympics.

It is quite a turnaround from last year, when Pyongyang tested missiles that could reach the US mainland and detonated what it said was an H-bomb, sparking fury from Trump who threatened to "completely destroy" the North.

- Glittering ceremony -

Friday's opening ceremony included several performers with disabilities -- a drummer with a prosthetic arm and legs beat a giant traditional drum, and a choir of wheelchair-bound performers sang the South Korean anthem.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in officially declared the the biggest Winter Paralympics in history open, before fireworks light up the night sky above the stadium.

In an opening address, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons urged the Paralympians to "keep fighting, play fair, have fun and keep pushing your limits.

"Your extraordinary stories are what dreams are made of and will be told for years to come."

There are 567 athletes at the Games competing in 80 medal events across six sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice hockey, snowboard and wheelchair curling.

Among them are 30 neutral competitors from Russia, which remains suspended by the IPC over a mass doping scandal.

Parsons has defended the decision to allow Russians to take part -- they were banned entirely at the Rio 2016 Paralympics -- insisting those competing are "as clean as any others" at the Games.

Some of the adapted sports have become hits with spectators, such as fast and furious para ice hockey where competitors slide around on double-bladed sledges.

As well as North Korea, Georgia and Tajikistan are taking part for the first time in the nine-day Games.

Paralympians are an eclectic bunch, ranging from a 61-year-old Japanese ice hockey goaltender to a Mexican who found unlikely success as a mono-skier.

American snowboarder Brenna Huckaby, who lost her right leg below the knee, made headlines when she featured in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.