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September 12, 2000

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North Korea eyes gold and glory

Marie McInerney

North Korea's Olympic team may carry only modest medal hopes for the Sydney 2000 Games but they will march in Friday's opening ceremony with eyes fixed on an historic goal -- reunification with South Korea.

Senior North Korean Olympic official Ryu Song-il said the country's athletes welcomed the two Koreas' dramatic decision to march together at an Olympics for the first time.

"(We are) very happy to show the world Korea is one," he told reporters after the North Korean flag was raised on Tuesday at the Sydney athletes' village.

"When the opening ceremony comes, you try to distinguish who is North Korean and who is South Korean," said Ryu, general secretary of North Korea's National Olympic Committee.

"You can't. That's why Korea is one."

International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Juan Antonio Samaranch announced on Friday that North and South Korea, who fought a bitter civil war 50 years ago and have never signed a peace treaty, would parade in Sydney under a flag representing an undivided peninsula.

They will still compete against each other in the Games, though, with the South seen once again outperforming their rivals.

South Korea hopes to finish among the top 10 medal winners in Sydney, as it did in Atlanta in 1996, with at least 10 gold medals. Their sights are set on taekwondo, archery, gymnastics, wrestling, shooting, judo, table tennis, weightlifting and handball.

Ryu said North Korea was hoping for "two or three" golds, at least matching its performance at Atlanta. It is optimistic about its chances in judo, wrestling and weightlifting.

One star athlete who will not figure in the medals table in Sydney is diminutive Jong Song-ok, winner of the women's marathon at last year's world championships in Seville.

Jong, 26, recently unexpectedly announced her retirement.

Ryu told reporters: "We want to take gold medals -- as many as we can," adding that training had been going well since the team's arrival on Sunday. "Everything is okay, very smooth."

That may be so for Olympic preparations, but there are many obstacles ahead of reunification -- on the sports field and beyond.

"It's very difficult, you know," Ryu said when asked when the two Koreas might team up, on the soccer pitch or elsewhere, citing issues ranging from politics to infrastructure.

In June this year, the leaders of North and South Korea met for an historic summit and agreed to work on improved ties.

The two countries came close to forming a joint team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, but they failed.

Meanwhile tensions have remained high along the Demilitarised Zone bisecting the peninsula, the world's last Cold War frontier.

Ryu admitted he had never dreamed he would live to see the two Koreas marching together at the Olympics.

"Nobody expected it, nobody expected this very big eventů"

"This marching will lead to the reunification, this I hope."

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