(Reuters) – North Korean athletes and officials taking part in the Asian Winter Games arrived in the Japanese city of Sapporo on Friday and made it clear they are focused only on sport, brushing off questions related to the murder of their leader’s half-brother.
Japan has long had comprehensive sanctions in place against North Korea due to its nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches but decided this month to allow a delegation to take part in the Games on its northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
Their participation at the Games has garnered more attention following the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, who was killed at an airport in Kuala Lumpur on Monday as he waited for a flight to Macau.
Lawmakers in South Korea have cited their spy agency as saying it suspected two female North Korean agents had murdered Kim Jong Nam, and U.S. government sources also said they believed North Korean assassins were responsible.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported on Friday that the North Korean athletes and officials were met by a group of pro-Pyongyang Korean residents in Japan (Chongryon) at Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport.
North Korea’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Chang Ung, who is heading the delegation, told Yonhap he had so much experience of major events that this was nothing special.
“I’ve been doing this my entire life so really there’s no special feeling about this,” he said.
Yonhap reported that when a question was asked regarding the murder of Kim Jong Nam a member of Chongryon moved in to end the interview.
Chang later said he would be happy to talk about the Games all day long but would not discuss matters other than sport.
“I’m here as an IOC member,” he told Yonhap. “I can talk about sport as long as you want but it’s not my place to talk about anything else.”
North Korea has sent seven athletes to the Winter Games in Sapporo and will be competing in short track speed skating and figure skating.
Japan has previously relaxed its travel ban on North Korea for sporting events and last year allowed the women’s soccer team to enter the country for an Olympic qualifier.
The Asian Winter Games run from Feb. 19-26.
(Writing by Peter Rutherford in Seoul; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)