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[Newsmaker] Kim Yong-nam: ceremonial leader of reclusive regime

With North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam planning to attend the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the focus is on what his participation means and who will be joining him during the scheduled visit.

In a message sent Sunday night via a cross-border communication channel, North Korea told South Korea that it would send a high-level delegation from Feb. 9-11, the South’s Unification Ministry said. It said the North’s delegation includes Kim and three other officials but gave no further details.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae welcomed Kim’s visit, saying it showed the North’s willingness to improve inter-Korean ties because Kim is the highest-level North Korean official to visit South Korea since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration.

“We believe North Korea showed its sincere and earnest efforts to improve inter-Korean ties and make the PyeongChang Olympics successful,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said during a press briefing.

North Korea`s nominal leader Kim Yong-nam, who serves as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Yonhap
North Korea`s nominal leader Kim Yong-nam, who serves as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Yonhap

The spokesperson also left open the possibility that Kim would meet with South Korea’s President Moon, saying the presidential office is preparing for a “communication opportunity” and its staff is discussing the level and agenda of the potential talks.

Serving as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim has often been described as the North’s nominal head of state because he receives visiting foreign leaders, approves the credentials of ambassadors and represents North Korea on state visits abroad

When North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong-il held a historic summit with South Korea’s late Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Ro Mu-hyun in 2000 and 2007, respectively, Kim Yong-nam had met with the South Korean leaders before Kim Jong-il visited the South.

“It seems to me that (North Korea’s current leader) Kim Jong-un has made a bold decision,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. “Though he had little influence on domestic politics, the North’s past summit diplomacy with third world countries has been led by Kim.”

During the previous 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Kim Yong-nam attended the sporting event as the North’s ceremonial leader.

But the nominal role he has played in domestic politics has prompted skepticism over whether Kim Yong-nam would be able to represent Kim Jong-un and carry his message to South Korea – unless he is accompanied by a more powerful right-hand man to Kim Jong-un like Choe Ryong-hae, who is considered the second-most powerful man in the reclusive regime.

Kim Yong-nam is one of the few top aides to Kim Jong-un who has not been blacklisted by the United Nations and United States for involvement in North Korea’s illicit nuclear programs. Kim Yong-nam, 90, has also survived frequent political purges led by Kim Jong-un and his predecessors.

“Kim Yong-nam’s visit is another evidence that the North puts little emphasis on the Olympics,” said Rep. Chang Je-won, spokesperson of South Korea’s main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which has criticized the Moon administration’s engagement policy with North Korea through the PyeongChang Olympics.

Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said North Korea has appeared to make a strategic decision to break out of isolation and could send another of Kim Jong-un’s top aides to the delegation led by Kim Yong-nam.

Among officials who could be included in the delegation list are Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling party, and Ri Su-yong, former foreign minister and current head of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs ,Cho said.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea would send more of those aides close to Kim Jong-un,” Cho said. “Of course, they would be reluctant to send officials who can provoke the US. … It depends on who will attend the Olympics from the US.”

By Yeo Jun-suk(