Led by a hawkish general in charge of inter-Korea relations, a group of high-level delegates from North Korea will be dispatched for the closing ceremony of PyeongChang Olympics, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Thursday.
The North notified the Unification Ministry that it would send Sunday eight delegates led by Gen. Kim Yong-chol, head of the ruling party’s United Front Department and former chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau.
Accompanied by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification, Kim and six support staff will meet President Moon Jae-in before returning home on Tuesday, the presidential office said.
“We are going to accept the visit by North Korea’s high-level delegates as we believe it would improve inter-Korean ties, establish peace on the Korean Peninsula and move forward with denuclearization process,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said President Moon will meet with the North Korean delegates in a natural manner, hinting that there will be separate meetings outside of the closing ceremony which President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump will attend.
Kim’s visit once again raises the prospect of a possible meeting between US and North Korea high-level delegates, which the US claimed had been canceled at the last minute by North Korea during the opening ceremony on Feb 9.
But the presidential office dismissed the possibility of direct interactions between the North and US high-level delegates with the Moon Jae-in administration working as an intermediary to make such meeting happen, a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“I don’t think there will be such opportunities,” the official said. “(The US and North Korea tried to meet last time, but they returned home after recognizing the current situation. Therefore, I don’t think there will be immediate efforts to make something out of it.”
The official said the government will make sure that the North Korea and US delegates do not encounter each other during the closing ceremony. At the opening ceremony, US Vice President Mike Pence appeared to have deliberately snubbed the North Korean delegates.
Cheong Wa Dae and the Unification Ministry welcomed the planned visit by the North Korean delegates. But concern persists over whether the government should accept the visit by chief delegate Kim, a combative four-star general who allegedly orchestrated several attacks on South Korea, including the sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010, which killed 46 sailors.
“The mastermind of Cheonan sinking can never set foot in South Korea,” said Rep. Jun Hee-kyung, a spokesperson of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which urged the Moon Jae-in administration to take tough stance against North Korea.
“There are only two choices left for President Moon. Either let Kim Yong-chul kneel before the people or deny him any access our territory. ... If there is one reason he can be allowed to cross the border, it would be to ask for forgiveness from the victims of Cheonan sinking.”
Unification Minister Cho Myung-kyun told the lawmakers that it needs further confirmation to determine whether Kim gave direct orders to sink Cheonan, which is widely believed to have been torpedoed by North Korea.
Kim is also subject to financial sanctions by the South Korean and the US governments for his involvement in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. He was placed under sanction by the US in 2010 and South Korea in 2016.
Asked whether Kim’s visit to South Korea would clash with international sanctions, the minister said Kim was only under financial sanctions by South Korea and the US, not the UN sanction which would have banned him from crossing the border.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Noh Kyu-duk said the government will work with the US and other countries to ensure Kim’s visit will not undermine the international efforts to enforce sanctions on North Korea.
Pointing to Kim’s combative history and aggressive stance, analysts said picking Kim as the chief delegate appeared to be a propaganda campaign aimed at the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on North Korea
“It seems to me a North Korean way of getting back at the US for when its senior delegates were snubbed by Pence,” Ko Myung-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said. “They might want to do the same thing to Ivanka this time.”
During the Olympic opening ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence ignored the North’s high-level delegation, including Kim Yo-jong -- the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un -- and nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam.
Before arriving in South Korea, Vice President Pence accused North Korea of trying to hijack the Olympics for propaganda purposes. He then met with North Korean defectors and visited the memorial for the Cheonan sinking to highlight the North’s human right abuses and military provocations.
Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said Kim and other delegates might contact Ivanka for talks during their stay, but it would only for propaganda purpose -- not serious talks for future nuclear negotiations.
“Unlike Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-nam, who might have trouble talking to the US first because of their position in the country, Kim Yong-chul and his staff don’t have to care much about how they look. … They might contact Ivanka for talks … although it won’t be serious talks with specific purposes.”
By Yeo Jun-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org