Fans cheer during a friendly basketball match between North and South Korea at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang on July 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Kim Won-Jin
Fans cheer during a friendly basketball match between North and South Korea at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang on July 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Kim Won-Jin

North and South Korea wrap up a two-day, inter-Korean basketball friendly in Pyongyang on Thursday, the day before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to land in the North Korean capital for the first high-level talks on denuclearization since the ground-breaking Singapore summit last month.

Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, and Choe Hwi, a vice-party chairman and the chief of the national sports body, attended Wednesday’s basketball games, along with Ri’s counterpart, South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who is heading the 100-strong visiting delegation of athletes, coaches, officials and reporters.

Although the matches were held at the suggestion of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a well-known basketball fan who has befriended former NBA star Denis Rodman, Kim did not attend the matches. However, he did watch them on TV, North Korean officials told South Korean officials, according to press reports from Pyongyang.

Wednesday’s matches were played in Pyongyang’s Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium – named after the late founder of South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, who was himself born in the North, and who spearheaded cross-border reconciliation efforts in the 1990s – between a “peace” team and a “prosperity” team made up of both Northern and Southern players.

No news had arrived at time of publication on Thursday’s matches.

The last inter-Korean basketball games were held in 2003. The South Korean delegation is expected to return home on Friday.

Also on Friday, US Secretary of State Pompeo is expected to land in North Korea for high-level meetings. Enormous anticipation surrounds this, his third trip to Pyongyang, as it is the first to be held since Kim met US President Donald Trump at their summit in Singapore on June 12. Pompeo’s visit is expected to kick-start the hugely anticipated process of North Korean denuclearization.

It is expected to be fraught.

While the June summit was praised for breaking decades of deadlock between Pyongyang and Washington and the two leaders appeared to hit it off, the summit declaration was slammed for being vague. Most notably, critics said it being short on details about the denuclearization process: It contained no commitments, no concrete steps and no timeline.

Since then, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha revealed she had seen Pompeo’s plan for denuclearization. Separately, US National Security Advisor John Bolton said the US has a plan that would lead to North Korean denuclearization within one year.

But huge questions hang over the process – particularly since recent reports from multiple sources allege North Korea continues to work on its nuclear programs.

Experts hope that in the early stages, North Korea will present the US with a full list of its facilities, assets and personnel and offer protocols that will offer international inspectors full access to sites and suspected sites nationwide.

Pompeo is expected to fly to Tokyo on Monday to debrief his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Taro Kono and Kang, on the results of his talks with the North Koreans.