North Korea said Thursday it will send a high-level delegation, including a top party official in charge of inter-Korean affairs, to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics' closing ceremony scheduled for Sunday, Seoul officials said.
Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's central committee, will lead the eight-member delegation, which will arrive in the South on Sunday for a three-day trip, according to Seoul's unification ministry.
The trip coincides with a visit by US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka to the South, further fanning speculation about a possible meeting between officials from the United States and North Korea on the sidelines of the Olympics.
Ivanka Trump, who serves as an adviser to the president, will arrive in Seoul on Friday for a four-day stay.
"The government believes the North Korean delegation's dispatch will help improve inter-Korean relations and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, including the North's denuclearization," the Ministry of Unification said. "In that sense, Seoul will accept their visit."
North Korea dispatched a high-level delegation that includes its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of the North's leader Kim Jong-un, from Feb. 9-11 to attend the Olympics' opening ceremony.
Kim Yong-chol (Yonhap)
Kim Yo-jong delivered her brother's letter to President Moon Jae-in, which includes an invitation of the South's leader to Pyongyang at an early date.
Vice President Mike Pence led the US delegation to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics earlier this month, but there was no meeting between Pence and Kim Yo-jong.
But the US said Wednesday that Pence had planned to secretly meet with the North's delegation at the request of North Korea, but Pyongyang abruptly canceled the planned meeting Feb. 10.
A flurry of sports diplomacy between the two Koreas began after the North's leader expressed a willingness to send a delegation to the Games in his New Year's Day message.
The two Koreas held their first formal talks in more than two years last month and agreed to have their athletes jointly march at the Games' opening ceremony and field a unified women's ice hockey team for the Olympics.
Seoul also temporarily eased its unilateral sanctions and sought cooperation with the US and the international community for an exemption from a set of sanctions to help the North's participation in the Games.
But the inclusion of Kim Yong-chol in the delegation is likely to stir up a controversy as he is blacklisted under Washington and Seoul's unilateral sanctions. He is leading the WPK's department in charge of affairs with the South.
The 72-year-old Kim, former chief of North Korea's reconnaissance bureau, is suspected of having orchestrated Pyongyang's two deadly attacks on the South in 2010 -- the sinking of the Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Gen. Kim, known as a hard-liner, is also believed to have masterminded the planting of land mines across the inter-Korean border that severely injured two South Korean staff sergeants in August 2015.
Kim led the North's Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is tasked with intelligence operations in foreign countries and cyberwarfare. The bureau is known to be behind Pyongyang's alleged cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014.
Ri Son-gwon, a member to the high-level delegation and the chief of the state agency handling inter-Korean affairs, is also known as one of the closest aides to Kim Yong-chol.
Experts said that the North appears to be trying to test South Korea's resolve to improve inter-Korean relations by sending Kim, a move certain to anger conservatives in the South.
South Korea has concluded that North Korea was behind the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March 2010, which left 46 South Korean sailors dead. Seoul imposed sanctions banning inter-Korean exchanges on May 24, 2010 to punish the North for the attack.
Opposition lawmakers expressed their strong objection to Kim's planned visit, calling on the government to rescind its acceptance of the delegation.
"The South's defense ministry previously concluded that it is hard to pinpoint who was specifically responsible for the warship sinking," Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers.
The minister said that Kim is blacklisted by the South's 2016 unilateral sanctions on the North's nuke and missile provocations, but his trip to Seoul is not problematic as the sanctions involve an asset freeze, not a travel ban.
South Korea hopes the North's participation in the Winter Games will help ease tensions that heightened last year due to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.
President Moon hopes that the Olympics-driven rapprochement and better inter-Korean ties could pave the way for broader dialogue between the US and North Korea over denuclearization.
But some experts said that the North appears to want to weaken international sanctions and drive a wedge in the decadeslong alliance of the South and the US by using a charm offensive with its Olympic participation.
Experts said the North's delegation is likely to deliver Kim Jong-un's invitation to Moon again in a meeting with the South's president.
"As the delegation is to attend the closing ceremony, it won't make excessive demands as to the Seoul-Washington military drills. The South also won't discuss the North's nuke and missiles this time," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.
Seoul and Washington delayed their regular annual joint military drills until after the Olympics and the March 9-18 Paralympics. The North has long denounced them as rehearsals for war, calling for a complete suspension.
"There seems to be a slim chance about possible meaningful talks between the US and North Korea as the North's team consists of officials in charge of affairs with the South," Cheong added. (Yonhap)