Basketball diplomacy: S. Korea teams head for Pyongyang

SEOUL, July 3 (AFP) - A high-level South Korean delegation left for Pyongyang Tuesday with dozens of basketball players, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's favourite sport becomes the latest effort at athletic diplomacy between the neighbours. 

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon will lead the delegation of 50 male and female players, in the first visit to Pyongyang by an official from the South since Kim and US President Donald Trump's landmark summit in Singapore last month.

Sporting cooperation helped spark the current diplomatic thaw between the Koreas -- who are still technically at war -- after the North sent a high-level delegation and athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea last February.

Recently the two Koreas announced they would field joint teams in three sports -- canoeing, rowing and women's basketball -- at the upcoming Asian Games.

Cho told journalists he hoped the games would "further enhance peace on the Korean Peninsula".

Basketball fan Kim -- who has met former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman several times in Pyongyang -- reportedly expressed his enthusiasm for basketball exchanges at a landmark summit with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in in April.

The last basketball friendly took place in 2003 in Pyongyang when a gym bankrolled by the South's Hyundai business group opened in the North's capital.

In that match, North Korea, led by Ri Myong Hun -- who, at 235 centimeters (7 feet 8.5 inches) was described as the world's tallest player -- routed South Korea 86-57.

South Korea's Hur Jae, who captained his side during the defeat, is now returning to Pyongyang as a coach. "I hope to see Ri and share soju (Korean traditional liquor) with him", he told journalists.

Cho earlier declined to provide details of his itinerary, including whether he plans to meet Kim during his stay in North Korea.

It is also unclear whether Cho will meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will leave for Pyongyang Thursday to flesh out a bare bones nuclear agreement between Trump and Kim.

Trump has boasted that a statement he signed with Kim in Singapore last month resolved the old foes' nuclear stand-off, but Pompeo has been tasked with nailing down details.

The basketball teams will play a total of four matches, and return home on Friday.

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