The delegation includes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, in a move thought to be part of the communist nation’s Olympic peace offensive.
|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un`s sister, Kim Yo-jong, arrived at Incheon Airport in South Korea on Friday. (Yonhap)|
A North Korean private jet carrying the 23-member delegation for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics arrived at Incheon Airport, the main gateway to the South, at 1:46 p.m.
The delegation will stay in South Korea for three days.
The team led by ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, was greeted by a welcoming team consisting of South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung and Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the presidential National Security Office.
Kim Yo-jong is the first member of the ruling Kim family to visit the South, while Kim Yong-nam is the most senior North Korean official to embark on a cross-border trip. Their visit comes after Kim Jong-un offered an olive branch to the South in his New Year’s address, following years of missile provocations and nuclear tests.
After exchanging warm greetings in a reception room for about 20 minutes, the North Korean delegation boarded a PyeongChang-bound KTX bullet train from a station at the airport.
As for the delegation’s itinerary, they were to attend the opening ceremony for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which was to start 8 p.m. sharp on Friday at the Olympic Plaza in the host city of PyeongChang, Gangwon Province.
The two Koreas agreed last month that their athletes would march under the Korean Unification Flag portraying a blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula.
Prior to the ceremony, however, Kim Yong-nam will separately attend a reception for foreign dignitaries hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Several world leaders, including US Vice President Mike Pence were to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him at the ceremony and reception.
Cheong Wa Dae has also prepared a luncheon for the North Korean delegation on Saturday, where Kim Yo-jong was expected to come face-to-face with President Moon Jae-in.
Experts have their attention on Kim Yo-jong. With her direct link to Kim Jong-un and as a member of the North’s “dynastic bloodline,” she is expected to play a key role in laying the foundation for stronger inter-Korean ties and dialogue with the North.
US analyst Michael Madden described her as “a mixture of (White House press secretary) Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a chief of staff, Ivanka Trump, and whoever writes Trump’s speeches these days” in a recent interview with NBC. Madden also highlighted her role within the North Korean government as first vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee and deputy chief of the all-important ruling party propaganda and agitation department, noting that she has “a tremendous amount of power.”
Jeong Se-hyun, who served as the South’s Minister of Unification for the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration said in an interview with a local radio station that Kim Jong-un has sent his sister to express willingness to revive inter-Korean talks which could pave the way for Washington-Pyongyang dialogue.
But others are skeptical that Kim Yo-jong’s presence in South Korea will lead to any noteworthy breakthrough in the current situation surrounding North Korea, with Pyongyang’s unwillingness to give up its nuclear development program.
“President Moon Jae-in has tied the issue of bringing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula to an improvement in inter-Korean ties, but North Korea is not interested in denuclearization at the moment,” said research fellow Woo Jung-yeop at Sejong Institute,
Friday’s visit also came as the United Nations Security Council greenlighted the travel of a North Korean official blacklisted by its sanctions. Choe Hwi, chairman of the North’s National Sports Guidance Committee, was temporarily exempted from a UN travel ban at the request of the South Korean government.
Seoul has been asking the international community to support North Korea’s participation in the Olympics.
Some experts are voicing concerns that North Korea may be using the Olympic overture to gain more leeway on international sanctions.
“(Recently, North Korea has often made moves that call for sanctions exemptions), and sending Choi Hwi to South Korea is North Korea’s tactics to widen the scope of its sanctions violation,” a source from a state-run research institute, told The Korea Herald, on condition of anonymity.
The South Korean society and political sphere however, continued to remain divided over the North’s participation in the games even hours before the opening of the 2018 Olympics.
The ruling Democratic Party on Friday reiterated the importance of using the Olympics as an opportunity for smoother inter-Korean dialogue.
“We have to use the Olympics as a stage of peace as much as possible so as to open wider the door of inter-Korean dialogue,” Rep. Woo Won-shik, the party’s floor leader, said during a party meeting just hours before the Olympics kick off.
But the main opposition Liberty Korea Party ramped up criticism that the government is allowing the North to take center stage at the Olympics and that Pyongyang is trying to use the games for its propaganda purposes.
“The government invited North Korea’s leadership after making the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which we worked hard to win the right to host, a ‘Pyongyang Olympics,’” Hong Joon-pyo, leader of the party, said in a Facebook post.
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)