By Yuna Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - A leading North Korean sports official believes it is too late to consider South Korean President Moon Jae-in's proposal to form a unified team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, saying that political tension must be resolved first.
At the opening of the World Taekwondo Championships in Muju on Saturday, Moon said he wanted the Koreas to compete as one team next year and highlighted the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships as an example of a previous merger.
However, North Korean International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Chang Ung ruled out the idea of a North-South team, telling the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper that it was an unrealistic aim in the present political climate.
"It took us 22 rounds of talks to set up that joint (table tennis) team for the 1991 games. It took us five months," Chang, who is leading the North Korea delegation at the Taekwondo event in a city two hours south of Seoul, told the paper.
"That's the reality we face."
Chang also ruled out the possibility of using venues in the North to co-host the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games and dismissed the notion that a unified team would help improve ties by saying: "The Olympics should not be used for a political aim."
"As an expert of the Olympics, it is a little late to be talking about co-hosting. It's easy to talk about co-hosting, but it is never easy to solve practical problems for that. It's the same for forming a joint team for ice hockey," Chang added.
Moon, who was a senior official in the liberal former South Korean government of Roh Moo-hyun in the 2000s, took office on May 10, winning an election on a more moderate approach to North Korea and a promise to engage Pyongyang in dialogue.
He believes engagement must be used as well as pressure to ease tensions between the rival states and convince the North to abandon its defiant nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
South Korea's sports officials said they remained receptive to the idea of competing together, however.
"We are still open to possibilities about forming a joint team," said Chun Byong-keuk, director general of Sports Corporation of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan said last week that he would hold talks with the IOC about forming a joint female ice hockey team for the 2018 Olympics.
(Editing by John O'Brien)