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South Korea lifters leave for Pyongyang

SEOUL (Reuters) - A delegation of South Korean weightlifters left for Pyongyang on Tuesday to take part in a regional competition that could see the South's flag raised and national anthem played officially for the first time on North Korean soil.

The two Koreas have only resumed dialogue in recent weeks after months of tensions earlier this year appeared to take their frayed ties to the brink of war as Pyongyang threatened missile and nuclear attacks against the South and its ally the United States.

The visit was approved by Seoul's Unification Ministry last week after Pyongyang promised to guarantee the safety of the South Korean delegation, the ministry said.

The North also agreed to allow the South Korean flag to be raised if one of their lifters gets on the podium, and will play the South's anthem if one of their athlete's wins gold.

Kim Ki-dong, vice president of Korea Weightlifting Federation, said he hoped the visit would boost relations between the two neighbors.

"No matter what the results (of the competition) will be, I hope our visit to Pyongyang at this point in time, when the South and North are divided, would develop a good momentum to boost sports exchanges," he said ahead of the team's departure.

The delegation of 22 lifters and 19 officials from the federation flew to Beijing from Gimpo International Airport in Seoul. They were then to board a connecting flight to Pyongyang.

The lifters were invited to compete in the 2013 Asian Cup and Interclub Weightlifting Championship from September 11-17 in the North Korean capital.

Lifter Cheon Jung-pyung was well aware of the significance of the visit.

"We're going into North Korea, which is a big issue in history," he said. "I'll make sure to sing the South Korean national anthem there."

The last time South Korean athletes competed in North Korea was in 2003 for an inter-Korean basketball and soccer event.

In July, the North Korean women's national football team received a warm welcome in the South when they competed in the East Asian Cup.

(Reporting by Kim Do-gyun; Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by John O'Brien)

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