Expectations for direct contact between North Korea and US during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics appear to be dim even as Pyongyang announced it is sending Kim Yong-nam, ceremonial head of the communist state, to South Korea during the international sporting event.
Pyongyang informed Seoul on Sunday night that Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, will head its high-level delegation to participate in the opening ceremony of the Feb. 9-25 Games. US Vice President Mike Pence will also be present at the event.
South Korea has sought to use the Olympics to bring North Korea and the US to a long-stalled talks on the North’s denuclearization, but experts point out that it is unlikely that Pyongyang and Washington will hold “meaningful” talks on the sidelines of the Olympics.
Ko Myung-hyun, researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that sending Kim, who he sees as not high-profile enough to deliver North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s message, is a sign that the North is neither willing to talk to the US nor give up its nuclear weapons programs.
“North Korea is making clear that it is using South Korea and seeking to improve inter-Korean ties through the Olympics only to weaken international and US sanctions on the communist state,” he told The Korea Herald.
Cheong Wa Dae on Monday welcomed North Korea’s plan to send its nominal head of state to the Olympic Games, saying it shows the communist state’s sincere efforts to improve inter-Korean ties.
But other experts like Shin Beom-chul, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said that sending Kim, who he thinks is an appropriate counterpart to the US Vice President Pence, signals North Korea’s willingness to talk to the US.
“North Korea sent a figure who is not on the UN Security Council sanctions list, which is a result of North Korea’s consideration of possible talks with the US,” Shin said. “But North Korea-US talks would not be easy because the US sees the North’s planned military parade as a provocation.”
US President Donald Trump (left) meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House in Washingtonon Friday. (EPA-Yonhap)
Despite a thaw in inter-Korean relations with the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics, tensions are running high between North Korea and the US.
North Korea is preparing to hold a military parade on Feb. 8, while the US is stepping up its pressure on the reclusive regime by sticking to sanctions on North Korea and highlighting the North Korean regime‘s human rights violations.
Asked whether Pence will meet Kim on the sidelines of the Olympics on Monday, Joseph Yun, US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, said that “You should ask that to the vice president.” Yun was in Seoul to meet his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon to discuss ways to channel the reconciliatory mood created by North Korea‘s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics into resumption of talks aimed at “peacefully” resolving the nuclear stalemate.
Last Friday, he said that the US wants to open dialogue with North Korea, but dialogue “that could lead ... towards denuclearization.”
Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the State Department‘s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Voice of America recently that there are no plans to meet with North Korean officials.
US Vice President Mike Pence quashed hopes of dialogue by saying that he comes to the South to convey the message that the “strategic patience” of the previous Barack Obama government is over. The Axios website quoted an unidentified aide to the vice-president as saying: “At every opportunity, the VP will point out the reality of the oppression in North Korea by a regime that has enslaved its people. We will not allow North Korea’s propaganda to hijack the messaging of the Olympics.
“The US will closely watch how North Korea holds a military parade and determine whether it has a willingness to talk,” Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University said. “If North Korea showcases its powerful military capabilities through the event, it will not be easy for North Korea and the US to open talks.”
Despite the grim prospects, experts did not rule out the possibility of talks between North Korea and the US. They said that South Korean government’s role is crucial in boosting the chances for such a breakthrough.
“For the US, it has no justification to meet North Korea’s Kim Yong-nam after the communist state holds a military parade on Feb. 8 as it could send a wrong message,” Shin said.
“The South Korean government should persuade the US to come to the negotiating table and also convince North Korea not to display long-range missiles that could provoke the US,” he said, stressing the government’s role as a bridge between them.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)