The combined Koreas march into Gelora Bung Karno Stadium under the "unification" flag during the opening ceremony for the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Unified Koreas, Indonesian culture highlight games opener

August 18, 2018 - 10:31 am

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Thousands of spectators cheered wildly as athletes from the rival Koreas paraded side-by-side behind a "unification" flag in a spectacular opening ceremony for the Asian Games.

When the stadium screen captured South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong Nam hand-in-hand with their arms raised together, the cheering intensified.

The two countries, still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, have fielded 60 athletes in combined teams along with larger contingents for their respective national squads. North and South Korean athletes are competing together in three sports.

High-ranking politicians from both Koreas watched as the athletes, many holding hands, paraded by in blue and white uniforms on Saturday night behind South Korean basketballer Lim Yung-hui and North Korean soccer player Ju Kyong Chol, who together carried the flag.

It was a virtual repeat of the joint march involving athletes from the North and South during the Winter Olympics in February in the South Korean ski resort of Pyeongchang — but without the gloves, parkas and fur hats.

The setting for this was tropical as about 42,000 people packed the Bung Karno stadium in the Indonesian capital for an elaborate ceremony showcasing diverse Indonesian culture.

Aside from the rousing applause for the Koreans, teams from Palestine, Syria, Taiwan and Indonesia received extra bursts of enthusiasm from the crowd.

Korean spectator Hwang Miri said the sight of the athletes marching together made her feel unification of the two countries was possible in her lifetime.

"Looking at all of these people working together and playing together, even walking all together in this unified uniform and the unified flag, it is such an enormous feeling," Hwang said.

Tensions between the two countries have ebbed this year with a historic meeting between their two leaders at the heavily fortified border.

The opening ceremony began with a slickly produced video portraying Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo stuck in traffic — a witty play on one of Jakarta's major challenges in hosting the games — donning a black helmet and jumping a motorbike over a ramp to reach the stadium in time.

The motorbike shown in the video sped into the stadium and its helmeted driver disappeared into a tunnel before the real Jokowi appeared in the VIP area.

Much of the stadium has been filled with a rainforest-covered volcano that formed the backdrop for a show based on air, earth, wind and fire themes and featuring thousands of performers representing the dozens of ethnic groups in Indonesia, a country of more than 260 million people.

Organizing chairman Eric Thohir said the games would highlight Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as a model of harmony and emphasize the diversity of Asia.

"We are all here to celebrate our diversity, to celebrate our differences, to celebrate our humanity," he told the crowd.

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