N. Korea makes Winter Paralympics debut with rookie skiers

Kim Jong Hyon, 17, and Ma Yu Chol, 27, crossed the start line in the men's cross-country skiing just after 10:00 am (0100 GMT).

Kim Jong Hyon of North Korea starts the men's 15km sitting cross-country skiing event of the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre on March 11, 2018.   -  AFP

Two North Koreans - who only began learning how to ski in December - became their isolated nation's first athletes to compete in the Winter Paralympics on Sunday, part of an Olympics-driven detente on the Korean peninsula.

Kim Jong Hyon, 17, and Ma Yu Chol, 27, crossed the start line in the men's cross-country skiing just after 10:00 am (0100 GMT).

There were cheers from spectators as the pair set off, with some people waving the blue-and-white Korean unification flag, which depicts an undivided Korean peninsula.

The pair were the first to start at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre in Pyeongchang in a 29-strong field competing in the men's 15km sitting category.

Organisers said the athletes only started skiing in three months ago and had previously played a version of table tennis for disabled competitors. Both suffered leg injuries in traffic accidents when they were young.

The participation of the North's wheelchair-bound athletes is part of a rapid rapprochement with the South that began at the Winter Olympics in February.

Pyongyang sent 22 athletes to the Olympics, and teams from the North and South marched together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony.

However most of the North's Olympic athletes had humiliating finishes, and a hastily-assembled joint women's ice hockey team lost every one of its five matches, scoring just twice while conceding 28 goals.

The rapid inter-Korean thaw has eased tensions that soared last year when Pyongyang tested missiles that could reach the US mainland and detonated what it said was an H-bomb.

The series of conciliatory steps culminated this week in US President Donald Trump agreeing to a historic meeting with the North's leader Kim Jong-Un.

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