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Too early to predict US-NK contact at Olympics: Seoul minister

South Korea's unification minister said Thursday that it is too early to say whether officials from the United States and North Korea will meet on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics' closing ceremony.

North Korea said it will send a high-level delegation led by Kim Yong-chol, a senior party official, to the closing Sunday for a three-day trip. It coincides with a visit by US President Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, to the South, fanning speculation about them possibly meeting here.

This photo, taken on Feb. 22, 2018, shows Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, telling lawmakers about inter-Korean ties. (Yonhap)
This photo, taken on Feb. 22, 2018, shows Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, telling lawmakers about inter-Korean ties. (Yonhap)

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers that it is too early to predict such a possible contact at the current stage.

"But the government will make efforts to lead the US and North Korea to open dialogue," Cho said.

An official at South Korea's presidential office said earlier in the day that there is a low chance of direct contact between the North Koreans and the US delegation.

Asked whether the South is considering sending a special envoy to North Korea, the minister said that the government needs to take into account many factors, including impact on inter-Korean ties and possible talks between the US and the North.

North Korea dispatched a high-level delegation that included 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 Yo-jong delivered a letter from her brother 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 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 on Feb. 10.

Seoul's unification ministry said in a report to the National Assembly that the US and the North do not reject dialogue itself but that they've failed to narrow their differences over conditions for opening talks.

"The government will seek to take an initiative in improving inter-Korean ties and helping the (reconciliatory) mood set the tone for denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea,"

it said.

"Based on inter-Korean talks and coordination with the relevant countries, the government will make efforts to bring the North to the negotiation table to open phased-in and comprehensive denuclearization talks," the ministry added.

A flurry of sports diplomacy between the two Koreas set in after the North's leader expressed a willingness to send a delegation to the Games in his New Year's message.

North Korea sent nearly 500 people, including athletes, musicians and cheerleaders, to the PyeongChang Games and will send a 150-member delegation to the March 9-18 Paralympics.

Cho said former North Korean table tennis player Ri Pun-hui, a ranking official at the North's governing body for the Paralympics, could come to the South.

"The North has yet to send a list of its delegation for the Paralympics," the minister said, adding that Ri could visit the South given current information available.

South Korea and North Korea fielded joint teams at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship. South Korean table tennis player Hyun Jung-hwa played double matches with Ri from North Korea.

Meanwhile, the minister said that the South has yet to specifically review the two Koreas' possible co-hosting of the 2021 Asian Winter Games.

Gov. Choi Moon-soon of South Korea's Gangwon Province said last week that he is considering a bid to co-host the Asian Games with North Korea and that the North's ski resort could be used.

Chang Ung, the lone North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), also expressed optimism about the Koreas'

joint holding of the Asian Winter Games.

"It is desirable for the two Koreas to keep up sports exchanges," Cho said. "But the South has yet to review the proposal, which is still in the infant stage, as we have time to gauge details." (Yonhap)