Cheers as N. Korea rookies finish last in Paralympics debut

Paralympic North Korean skier Kim Jong Hyon starts the men's 15km sitting cross-country (AFP Photo/Ed JONES) (AFP)

Two North Korean rookie skiers finished last as they made their country's Winter Paralympics debut in the South Sunday, but a flag-waving crowd cheered enthusiastically at the latest sign of an Olympics-fuelled rapprochement.

With spectators packing out the stands and waving the blue-and-white Korean unification flag, teenager Kim Jong Hyon and Ma Yu Chol -- who both only started skiing three months ago -- were the first over the start line in the cross-country race.

But they were no match for their more experienced rivals in the men's 15km sit ski category, and rolled in 26th and 27th, with Ma completing the course in 1hr 4min 57.3 sec, and Kim finishing in 1hr 12min 49.9sec.

The gold medal winner, Ukraine's Maksym Yarovyi, finished in around 41 minutes.

There was a silver lining to their less than triumphant debut -- while they finished last, a Georgian and a Belarusian failed to complete the course at all, meaning they did worse than the North Koreans.

Still, the North Koreans' participation was not so much about winning and more about extending a rapid rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang that began with last month's Winter Olympics.

The Olympics-driven detente has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity, which culminated in the shock announcement last week that US President Donald Trump had agreed to meet the North's leader Kim Jong Un.

It is a turnaround from last year, when tensions soared as the North fired missiles that could reach the US mainland and tested what it said was an H-bomb.

- 'Still the same people' -

In the stands of the Alpensia Biathlon Centre, spectators watching the North's first Winter Paralympians welcomed their presence as a sign of improving ties, and said they hoped the rapprochement would last.

Yun Mi-hyun, who was clutching the reunification flag that shows an undivided Korean peninsula, said that the easing of tensions with the North "warms my heart".

"We have been separated by war and politics, but we are still the same people," the 38-year-old property agent told AFP.

Ahn Sun-yong, 48, added: "We were one country before, and we want reunification some day."

Still there is much scepticism about the upcoming meeting between Trump and Kim, which is pencilled in for the end of May. The North has before dangled the prospect of halting its weapons programme before the US, only to backtrack later.

The background of the North's athletes suggests their presence is part of Pyongyang's political maneouvring -- the pair, both students, only started skiing in December, having previously played disabled table tennis, according to Games organisers.

Ma is 27 and Kim is 17, and both suffered serious leg injuries in car accidents.

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

Most of the North's Olympic athletes also 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.