PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks in Pyongyang, in the latest sign of rapidly warming relations between the estranged neighbors, triggered by the Olympic Games.
The invitation, delivered in person by Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, will likely cause consternation in Washington, where the Trump administration has been leading a campaign to put “maximum pressure” on the Kim regime to give up its nuclear program.
The meeting between the two Koreas came at the same time that Vice President Pence was in Seoul, where he had repeatedly called the Kim regime “the most tyrannical” on earth.
Moon, the progressive South Korean president who favors engagement with North Korea, hosted Kim Yo Jong, who came to Seoul as a special envoy for her brother, and Kim Yong Nam, who is technically North Korea’s head of state, for lunch at the presidential Blue House on Saturday. Between the lunch and talks, they spent almost three hours together.
Kim Yo Jong, who is thought to be about 30 years old, entered the meeting with the president carrying a blue folder with the North Korean crest embossed in gold on the front, which she carefully laid on the table in front of her.
After the meeting, South Korean presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said that Kim Yo Jong had delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un, inviting Moon to Pyongyang “soon” for talks. She also repeated the invitation directly to Moon to visit at a time convenient to him, he said.
Moon responded that he would try to make it happen, the spokesman said.
Two South Korean presidents, both of them progressives, have gone to Pyongyang for summits before, both with Kim Jong Un’s father. Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang in 2000 for a summit that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, although it later emerged his government had paid $500 million for the summit. Roh Moo-hyun went in 2007.
Moon is the political heir to the “sunshine policy” of engagement that Kim Dae-jung and Roh espoused.
But in their meeting Saturday, the South Korean president also asked North Korea to be amenable to talks with the United States, telling Kim Yo Jong that it was “urgent” for Pyongyang and Washington to start resolving their differences.
This is in line with Moon’s hopes that the inter-Korean detente could lead to broader negotiations on the core challenges facing the Korean Peninsula.
He has used the Winter Olympics, which opened in the South Korean area of PyeongChang on Friday, as a springboard for detente with North Korea. A total of about 500 North Koreans, including 22 athletes and 140 musicians, arrived in South Korea this week for the Olympics.
Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam arrived Friday afternoon, leading a senior delegation. They appeared in the VIP box at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies on Friday night.
Pence, who did not have any public schedule in Seoul on Saturday, made his feelings about Moon’s outreach to North Korea very clear on Friday.
He arrived late to the reception that Moon hosted before the opening ceremony, missing the group photo that included Kim Yong Nam, and stayed only five minutes, greeting the dignitaries at the top table but bypassing North Korea’s head of state. Instead of eating with Moon and the other dignitaries, Pence ate with the American athletes.
At the opening ceremony, Pence and the North Koreans, who were seated in the row behind him, studiously ignored each other, even as Moon and his wife turned around to greet the North Koreans warmly. Those photos quickly went viral.
Later in the ceremony, when the two Korean teams marched into the stadium together under a flag showing a unified Korean Peninsula, Pence, his wife Karen Pence and conservative Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe remained seated, even as everyone else in the box, including Olympic officials, rose to applaud.
Jarrod Agen, the vice president’s spokesman, on Saturday tweeted a recap of Pence’s visit so far. “VP stands and cheers for U.S. athletes, VP hangs out with U.S. athletes instead of dining with Kim regime, VP does not applaud N. Korea or exchange pleasantries w/ the most oppressive regime on earth,” Agen tweeted, with check marks next to each item.
Tensions between the United States and North Korea have risen sharply over the last year, as Kim Jong Un has made rapid progress in his nuclear weapons program and has made clear the program is being developed with the American threat in mind. Pyongyang has repeatedly said it needs a deterrent to stop the United States attacking it.
The Trump administration, and successive American administrations before it, has insisted that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons program if it wants to be treated as part of the international community.
However, few officials have said this in quite the colorful language that Trump has used.
Since arriving in Seoul on Thursday, Pence has been delivering a strong message against the Kim regime and waging a campaign to stop Pyongyang from “hijacking” the Olympics with its charm offensive.
This has exposed the gaps between Seoul and Washington in how to deal with North Korea.
The North Korean issue is especially emotional in South Korea because the peninsula, which had been one country for thousands of years, was arbitrarily cut in half at the end of World War II, in what was supposed to be a temporary division.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.
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