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No show of unity between 2 Koreas at Asian Games

With tension still high on the divided Korean peninsula, the closest North and South Korean athletes may get during the upcoming Asian Games in Guangzhou is on the football pitch when they oppose each other.

other Updated: Nov 06, 2010 14:04 IST

With tension still high on the divided Korean peninsula, the closest North and South Korean athletes may get during the upcoming Asian Games in Guangzhou is on the football pitch when they oppose each other.

In previous editions, the Asian Games have provided fertile ground for the two Koreas to engage in sports diplomacy as they seek to repair ties 60 years after war broke out between north and south. Four years ago, Korean athletes walked into the opening ceremony in Doha together, under a "unification" flag.

But the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship more than seven months ago has silenced any talk about a show of unity in Guangzhou even before it began. Seoul wants an apology; Pyongyang denies it torpedoed the Cheonan warship.

"No consultations have been made with North Korea. There's no atmosphere of dialogue due to the Cheonan incident," said Lee Kee-heung, head of the South Korean delegation to the Asian Games. Korean athletes from both sides of the Demilitarized Zone have proven to be tough competitors in international sports this year, with both Koreas sending football teams to the World Cup in South Africa and South Korea celebrating its biggest Winter Olympics medal haul in Vancouver.

In Guangzhou, South Korea is determined to hold onto its position as the Number 2 nation in the Asian Games medals table but hopes to close the gap on China by winning more than 65 golds, Lee said.

South Korea won 193 medals at Doha in 2006, including 58 gold, putting the nation ahead of Japan's 50.

Swimmer Park Tae-hwan, who won three golds in Doha and cemented his status as South Korea's darling when he became the first Asian to win an Olympic freestyle event at Beijing two years later, is shooting for two golds at these Asian Games.

The 21-year-old Park rebounded from a disappointing finish at the 2009 World Championships with a win in the 400-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacific championships in California in August, and will be competing in three events in Guangzhou.

"I'm really prepared for the Asian Games, so more than records I want to win the fight against myself," Park said. "Swimming is a constant fight against oneself and we must prevail (against ourselves) to achieve a good record."

South Korea is also expected to dominate in taekwondo, archery, wrestling, weightlifting and billiards.

They are aiming for nothing less than a sweep of the archery competition, led by veterans Im Dong-hyun, the reigning world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, and Oh Jin-hyuk for the men, and Beijing Olympic gold medalist Joo Hyun-jung for the women. Three Beijing Olympic medal winners in men's judo will also be at the Asian Games for South Korea; 60-kilogram division champion Choi Min-ho and Olympic silver medalists Kim Jae-bum (81 kilograms) and Wang Ki-chun (73 kilograms).

Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion weightlifter Jang Mi-ran, 26, is aiming to add "Asian Games champion" to her resume, despite losing practice time following a car accident earlier this year.

Nam Hyun-hee, South Korea's top woman fencer, is also focused on defending her title in foil. South Korea's fencers face their stiffest competition from the Chinese.

South Korea is also sending a strong baseball team, led by Cleveland Indians outfielder Choo Shin-soo, which will be looking to avenge a 2006 loss to Taiwan that left it out of the finals in Doha. The team also has a fierce traditional rivalry with Japan. On the football pitch, meanwhile, the two Koreas will go head-to-head in a men's match on November 8, their first meeting since a World Cup qualifier in 2009 at Seoul.

Both teams are expected to be fielding younger, untested players, with head coach Hong Myung-bo announcing that Monaco's Park Chu-young would serve as the team's wild card. Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-yueng was taken off the squad after his Scottish club refused to let him participate in the Asian Games, and was replaced by promising standout Yoon Bitgaram.

South Korea, a force in short-track speed skating in the Winter Olympics, is also seeking to collect medals in inline skating as well as in dance, both sports making their Asian Games debuts this year. The squad also includes a billiards champion, Cha Yu-ram, who goes to Guangzhou as the front-runner for gold.

South Korea will send a total of 850 athletes and officials, competing in all sports except cricket, to Guangzhou, with pistol shooter Park Byung-taek and fencer Nam Hyun-hee serving as team captains, officials said.

The men have an added incentive - winning an Asian Games gold exempts South Koreans from military duty. North Korea, meanwhile, is sending some 200 athletes to Guangzhou, with the aim of collecting medals in football, weightlifting, and shooting, national Olympic committee official Yon Yong Bok told China's state-run Xinhua news agency. "They are ready to win honor for the motherland with high morale," he told Xinhua earlier this month, calling it a key rehearsal for the 2012 London Olympics."

North Korea's powerful women's football team, ranked Number 6 in the world and a finalist at the AFC's Women's Asian Cup earlier this year, is seeking its third straight Asian Games gold. However the team will be unable to compete in gymnastics. The International Gymnastics Federation has banned North Korea from competitions, extending through the 2012 Olympics, for age falsification.

Hong Su Jong, who competed for North Korea at the 2004 Athens Olympics and won a silver in vault at the world championship in 2007, had listed three different birthdates in competition applications during her career, including the latest which would have made her ineligible to compete at Athens.

The team roster was not available, but top athletes such as Olympic gold medalist and world champion Pak Hyon Suk and world silver medalist Jong Chun Mi were expected to be contenders in women's weightlifting.

In women's judo, standouts include An Kum Ae in the 52-kilogram category and Kim Su Gyong at 63 kilograms, according to North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea won 31 medals at the Doha Asian Games in 2006, including six golds.

First Published: Nov 06, 2010 14:01 IST