Pyeongchang 2018: Athletes to travel through demilitarised zone

The unification bridge near the demilitarised zone in Paju in Gyeonggi-do Province, South Korea
The demilitarised zone is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the world

North Korean athletes will be allowed to travel through the demilitarised no-go zone into South Korea as a symbolic peace gesture before next year's Winter Olympic Games, organisers have promised.

The 4km-wide zone has huge numbers of armed troops stationed on both sides and no movement of people is allowed between the two.

But Pyeongchang 2018 organising committee chief Hee-Beom Lee said athletes from the North would be able to arrive by road.

"Symbolically, to maintain peace in the Korean peninsula, their participation is very important, and for the success of the Olympic Games," he added.

The demilitarised zone (DMZ), established at the end of the Korean War in 1953, will mean support staff and fans will still have to travel from the North by ship.

Last month, Olympic officials insisted rising tensions on the peninsula over the North's missile testing programme would not jeopardise the Games. South Korea's new president Moon Jae-in said on Wednesday there was a "high possibility" of military conflict with their neighbours.

So far, no North Koreans have qualified for the Games, with figure skating offering the best opportunity. The final places will be decided at the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September.

"With or without qualification we are still talking with the International Olympic Committee and the relevant international federations for North Korea to participate," Lee told BBC Sport's Alex Capstick.

He also spoke about Russia's participation at the Games - the International Paralympic Committee has banned Russian athletes following revelations of a state-sponsored doping programme, while Olympic chiefs have stopped short of an all-out ban.

Lee said the country was doing a good job cleaning up its anti-doping system and does not believe the IOC will block them.

"I'm hopeful and I'm confident for the Russians to participate in Pyeongchang 2018," he said.

He said he was also "hopeful" the NHL would allow its star ice hockey players to attend the Games.

The sport's leading league said last month it would not allow players to travel to Pyeongchang because club owners were unhappy at the prospect of halting the season for three weeks to make a window for the Games.

The 2018 Games will be held between 9 and 25 February, with the Winter Paralympics taking place from 9-18 March.