Sochi (Russia) (AFP) - South Korean organisers of the 2018 Winter Olympics said on Saturday they would welcome North Korean athletes at the Pyeongchang Games despite fraught ties between the neighbouring countries.
The next host city of the Winter Games is close to the heavily militarised border with the North -- the world's last great Cold War frontier.
Relations on the Korean peninsula are currently enjoying a tentative thaw, but precedent shows that military tensions can quickly surge to dangerous levels.
Pyeongchang organising committee chief Kim Jin-Sun said the participation of North Korea -- which does not have athletes at the Sochi Games -- in 2018 would be a "very good thing".
"Currently the interest in winter sports is growing so I hope that winter sports further develop in North Korea," said Kim.
"And I also hope four years from now North Korean athletes will be able to come to the Pyeongchang Games.
"If it's realised I think that's a very, very good thing."
Hundreds of elderly South and North Korean relatives met this week after 60 years apart at a reunion for families divided by the Korean War. The first of their kind for three years, the reunions are widely seen as a possible first step towards an improvement in cross-border ties.
Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.
Last year Games organisers rejected the idea of sharing the skiing events with North Korea as unrealistic after North Korea's International Olympic Committee member Chang Ung suggested the North could host some events.
And South Korea's Olympic officials say there have been no talks so far with North Korea about forming a joint team for the 2018 Games.
The two countries have never fielded a joint Olympic team, but their athletes marched together at the opening of the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics.
- Boost for winter sports in Asia -
Speaking on the penultimate day of competition at the Sochi Games, Kim said the 2018 Olympics would be a huge boost for winter sports in the region.
"In Asia, winter sports are relatively under-developed compared with Europe and North America," he said.
"But recently the interest in winter sports and related industries has grown dramatically. Asia has a great potential to become a huge market for winter sports. In that sense I believe Pyeongchang will offer a window of opportunity for Asia."
And Kim said he hoped to see players from the National Hockey League at the Pyeongchang Games, with the NHL still undecided on whether to allow its players to compete in 2018.
"Ice hockey is one of the most important sports on the Olympic programme," he said.
"NHL players have participated in every Olympics since Nagano in 1988 and their participation has made a great contribution to the worldwide expansion of winter sports.
"In that sense we sincerely hope and believe that they will come to the Pyeongchang Games in 2018."
The Games, with an overall budget of about $9 billion, would showcase South Korea's remarkable transformation into a modern industrial nation over the past few decades, Kim said.
"Thirty years ago the world saw a developing country... through the 1988 South Korean Games (in Seoul).
"Just one generation later in 2018 the world will be able to see a truly developed country of Korea through the Games."
Most of the venues to be used for snow sports are privately owned and will be used for tourism and leisure after the Games.
Indoor ice venues will be converted for a variety of uses including recreational facilities.