South Korean Sled Dogs Race in North བོད་སྐད།

You may remember the ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China back in the 1970s. Now, some South Korean athletes say they have introduced "dog sled diplomacy" to North Korea, as part of the quest for eventual Korean reunification. VOA's Kurt Achin heads to a North Korean mountain resort for a look.

This is no ordinary day at the races for these 80 or so sled dogs. They are making a rare visit to North Korea.

Their South Korean masters mushed them Sunday riding cycles, rather than sleds, due to lack of snowfall. No North Korean racers took part in this first-ever dog sled race on North Korean soil. Nor were any North Korean spectators allowed to attend. It was seen only by a few confused North Korean kitchen staff peering through a nearby hotel window. Some soldiers at a watch post high in the mountains also looked in, but journalists were sternly warned not to film them.

The South Koreans acknowledge that after years of food shortages, most North Koreans view dogs as something to eat rather than race. That is why South Korean Sledding Sports Federation President Kim Tae-ryoung says coming here is an important first step.

He says just a couple of decades ago, South Koreans did not know anything about sled dog racing, either. He says, at first, the North Korean soldiers did not understand why the dogs were crossing the border, but now, they are already talking about the sport with some familiarity.

The North Korean special tourism zone at Mount Kumgang was established 10 years ago. Even though the two countries remain technically at war, busloads of South Koreans cross the heavily defended border each day to visit the South Korean-funded resort.

Here, they can enjoy a North Korean theme park experience, of sorts. They get their first taste of the country's isolation when their mobile phones and laptops must be left behind at the border crossing.

Then, they can go mountain hiking around rock faces etched with slogans celebrating the worshipped Kim family that rules the nation - and later, watch folk performances with emotional music about national reconciliation.

Supporters of the zone say it allows valuable interaction between North and South after half a century of rivalry. However, access to villages where real North Koreans live is strictly prevented by wire fences, concrete walls, and military checkpoints.

Still, dog racer Cho Yunis says first steps are important.

"I think it has a very special meaning for us," he said. "It is good for our harmony between North and South Korea, especially because it's a first time."

Sponsors of the event say it has helped set up logistical mechanisms for similar events in the future, such as getting the racing breeds through North Korea's quarantine system.

That could pave the way for more crossings of the North-South Korean border - whether it is on two feet, or four.