SYDNEY — While Japan kicked off its Sydney Olympic campaign without many of its star athletes at the opening ceremony, it was the country’s Asian neighbors who grabbed the spotlight in the four-hour spectacular on Friday night.

A “unification flag” bearing a blue map of the Korean Peninsula proudly waved over the 180 athletes and officials from North and South Korea as they marched together for the first time in an Olympic opening ceremony.

South Korean women’s basketball captain Chung Eun Soon and North Korean judo coach Pak Jong Chol carried the flag to lead a 180-strong group at Sydney Olympic Stadium as the 17-day sporting extravaganza formally began after seven years of preparation.

Behind the placard “Korea,” representatives from the two halves of the peninsula wore uniforms of dark blue jackets and beige pants and entered the stadium to the tune of Korean folk song Arirang.

Included in the procession were South Korean International Olympic Committee member Kim Un Yong and his Pyongyang counterpart Chang Ung — the architects of the dramatic evening for the countries still technically at war after fighting the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The two flag bearers stopped for several seconds on the home stretch as International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch applauded warmly for the Koreans.

Friday’s parade came a week after Samaranch announced an IOC-brokered last-minute agreement between the sports officials from the estranged neighbors.

Earlier Friday, New South Wales Olympic Minister and Games chief organizer Michael Knight said he felt “privileged” about the unprecedented inter-Korean march.

“The first time the two Koreas march as one will be here in the Sydney 2000 Games. When things like that happen, they are events which move and progress forward to which there is no turning back,” Knight said.

Although the two Koreas have one ultimate common goal — reunification of the peninsula, their goals in Sydney are different.

South Korea sent a 400-strong delegation to Sydney, more than six times the size of the Olympic team from its northern neighbor.

The South Koreans aim to win at least 10 gold medals and finish among the top 10 countries in the medals standings, with their prospects having been enhanced by the addition of national martial art taekwondo as an official medal sport.

Officials of the North hope for two or three gold medals. But their athletes could return home empty-handed.

One star missing from the North’s delegation is world champion marathoner Jong Song Ok, who unexpectedly hung up her shoes one year after winning the women’s world title in Seville, Spain.

North and South Korea formed a unified team for the 1991 table tennis world championships in Chiba and the world youth soccer championship in Portugal later that same year.

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