PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The North Korean delegation to the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics said that Pyongyang was “willing to have talks” with the United States, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Sunday night.
North Korea agreed that inter-Korean relations should “improve together” with relations between North Korea and the United States, the Blue House said after an hour-long meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s chief representative, Kim Yong Chol, in PyeongChang, on the sidelines on the Games.
The statement did not make any mention of North Korea’s nuclear program or whether the dialogue would be about denuclearization. But still, this is the first sign of willingness from North Korea in years, and it comes when the Trump administration has been signaling an openness to talk without preconditions.
“President Moon pointed out the urgency to hold dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. in order to fundamentally the resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula and to improve inter-Korean relations,” the Blue House said.
“The North Korean delegation said that North Korea is willing to have talks with the U.S. and the North agrees that inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U. S. relations should advance together,” it said.
At the closing of the Games, the United States is being represented by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser. She is seated in the VIP box next to Moon and his wife.
North Korea’s delegation is led by Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of a key Communist Party committee dealing with inter-Korea relations and a former head of the North’s military intelligence service. He is seated in the row behind Trump, just as Kim Jong Un’s sister was seated in the row behind Vice President Pence at the Opening Ceremonies.
It emerged last week that Pence had planned to meet Kim Jong Un’s younger sister on the sidelines of the Opening Ceremonies, only for the plan to fall through at the last moment.
There was no sign of any interaction between Ivanka Trump and Kim Yong Chol during the close ceremony.
But after the aborted meeting during the opening, there has been speculation about a working-level meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials.
Trump is accompanied by Allison Hooker, the Korea director on the National Security Council and a key player in the White House’s policy on North Korea. Hooker met Kim Yong Chol, who was then head of the North’s military intelligence service, in Pyongyang in 2014 when she went there to secure the release of two Americans detained by the North Korean regime.
The surprise arrival Sunday of one of North Korea’s top officials on Pyongyang’s policy on North Korea only fueled speculation about a possible meeting between the officials.
Kim Yong Chol brought with him Choe Kang Il, deputy director of the U.S. affairs division in North Korea’s foreign ministry. His attendance surprised analysts because his role has nothing to do for the ostensible reason for the North Korean delegation’s attendance: sports and inter-Korean relations.
Choe has taken part in talks with former American officials in recent years, including at a security-related forum in Switzerland last September. His boss in the U.S. affairs division is thought to have a direct line to Kim Jong Un.
Neither Choe nor Hooker was visible during the Closing Ceremonies.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is traveling in South Korea with Trump and Hooker, said before the closing that no meetings were scheduled.
Some analysts said that a meeting between Hooker and Choe would be a good way to start easing tensions that have risen over the past year as North Korea has fired missiles and conducted a nuclear test, while the Trump administration has threatened military action to stop it.
“There is no reason for Allison Hooker to come, nor is there is there any reason for Choe Kang Il to be here,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “They’re both superfluous to the Olympic ceremonies and to inter-Korean relations.”
They would be appropriate officials to meet and have a “preliminary discussion” — not a negotiation, but a precursor to substantive talks, Delury said. “They could and they should do this,” he said.
Although recent efforts at persuading North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons have involved multilateral talks, the problem is between Pyongyang and Washington.
North Korea’s antagonism toward the outside world is rooted in its hatred of the United States, which all but destroyed the country with sustained bombing during the Korean War. That conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice — signed for the southern side by the United States, not South Korea.
To this day, North Korea says that it needs nuclear weapons to fend off the United States and insists that any normalization will require a peace treaty with the United States, as the signatory to the armistice, not with South Korea.
Choe was defiant when he led a North Korean delegation to a Swiss-organized meeting last September. The U.S. government did not send any officials to the meeting, but two regular U.S. interlocutors with North Koreans — former State Department official Evans Revere and Pacific Forum president Ralph Cossa — attended.
Choe delivered a strong message to the meeting: that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were not up for discussion.
The arrival of the North Korean delegation was controversial in South Korea for different reasons.
Kim Yong Chol is widely accused of masterminding two deadly attacks in 2010: a torpedo attack on the Cheonan naval corvette, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, and the shelling of an island, which killed four.
He has since been blacklisted by both the United States and South Korea for suspected involvement in the nuclear program. South Korea waived its sanctions to allow him to attend the Closing Ceremonies.
But throngs of conservatives, including lawmakers from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, staged a sit-in overnight on Saturday at the border crossing in the Demilitarized Zone where the North Korean delegation was scheduled to cross into the South.
They were protesting against the progressive government’s decision to allow Kim Yong Chol into the South, calling him a “murderer” and vowing to act as a “human shield” to stop him.
But their efforts were stymied: The delegation crossed Sunday morning using a military road.
Protests continued near the Olympic Closing Ceremonies site in PyeongChang, with South Koreans holding up North Korean flags and pictures of leader Kim Jong Un, both with red crosses across them.
A handful of protesters in Seoul held up banners showing President Trump’s face and the words: Bomb North Korea.
The conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest newspaper, said the progressive government was “Spitting on Cheonan victims’ graves” by allowing Kim Yong Chol into the country.
“Many South Koreans already feel uncomfortable with North Korea taking center stage at the Winter Olympics” the paper wrote in an editorial. “And now Seoul is going to roll out the red carpet for a butcher at the closing ceremony of an event celebrating sports and peace. Has the government not bent international sanctions far enough to accommodate North Korea?”
But analysts pointed out that conservatives had not protested when Kim Yong Chol came to South Korea for the Asian Games in 2014 — when conservative president Park Geun-hye was in power.
The North Korean delegation is due to stay until Tuesday, while Ivanka Trump will leave Monday.
Moon Jae-in’s pro-engagement government in South Korea has been trying to use the Olympics as a way to ease tensions between North Korea and the outside world.
When leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, came for the Opening Ceremonies earlier this month, she brought an invitation for Moon to visit Pyongyang. The South Korean leader said he would work to create the “right conditions” for the visit.
Vice President Pence actively avoided Kim Yo Jong during the Opening Ceremonies, even though they were sitting just feet apart. But the White House revealed afterward that they had a plan to meet on the day after the opening, Feb. 10, but the North Koreans backed out.
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