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North Korea turns to basketball diplomacy ahead of Pompeo visit

"Goodwill gestures between the Koreas can be compared to rocking back and forth in a rocking chair — it feels good, but you aren't really moving forward."

SEOUL, South Korea — Despite no signs of North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons any time soon, South Korea is literally bouncing ahead this week with peace efforts with its rival, which was threatening war just months ago.

Two days of friendly basketball games winding up Thursday in Pyongyang were the latest in a slew of goodwill gestures between the Koreas in recent months. The women's and men's matches came just ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's arrival in North Korea on Friday for two days of talks over the future of the North's nuclear program.

A capacity crowd of 12,000 applauded as the teams — dressed in white jerseys that read "Peace" and green jerseys that read "Prosperity" — marched onto the court holding hands. Players from the North and South were mixed into teams for Wednesday's games.

South and North Korean basketball players wave as they arrive at Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium in Pyongyang on Wednesday.AP

The South Koreans play the North Korean teams Thursday before returning home Friday.

It remains to be seen how much further the rival Koreas can push their conciliatory steps. The fate of these efforts is ultimately tied to progress in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. If the nuclear talks bog down, it could mean curtains for inter-Korean detente.

"Goodwill gestures between the Koreas can be compared to rocking back and forth in a rocking chair — it feels good, but you aren't really moving forward," said Bong Young-shik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "These gestures alone don't ensure progress in denuclearizing the North and stabilizing peace."

The basketball diplomacy follows agreements to send combined teams to the Asian Games in August and hold temporary reunions of now-aging relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The neighbors' militaries are in the process of restoring communication lines that could defuse crises across their tense border. Longer-term, the Koreas have vowed to improve the North's aging railways and roads.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who held highly-publicized summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April and May, has described the peace efforts as crucial because Kim won't give up his nuclear weapons unless he feels his security is assured.

With last month's summit between Kim and President Donald Trump resulting in only a vague statement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it's now up to Pompeo to hammer out the details in follow-up talks with North Korean officials.

Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Trump's window to lock North Korea into a genuine denuclearization process may close as early as November if his Republican Party loses congressional elections, reducing the administration's political leverage. It's crucial that Pompeo leaves Pyongyang with something substantial, he said.

"It would be tough for Pompeo to squeeze a timetable out of North Korea this week, but he at least needs to get them to announce a rough roadmap for denuclearization," Choi said.