North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-un has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to a landmark summit in Pyongyang “at the earliest date possible”, Seoul’s presidential palace said on Saturday.
The invitation was personally delivered by Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong as she and North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, enjoyed kimchi and soju liquor at an unprecedented lunch meeting with the South Korean leader.
Mr Moon replied in a positive manner during talks that lasted close to three hours, despite warnings from Washington against falling for Pyongyang’s recent charm offensive.
“Let us make it happen by creating the necessary conditions in the future,” he was quoted by his spokesman as saying. “It is absolutely necessary for the North and the United States to engage in talks at an early date,” Mr Moon added.
The lunch event continued the outward display of unity – between two countries still technically at war – that had been on show at the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday evening.
Kim Yong Nam, 90, is the most senior North Korean official ever to go South, while Ms Kim, who wore a pin depicting her father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung, is the first member of her dynastical ruling family to visit since the Korean War of the 1950s.
As Mr Moon warmly shook their hands on live TV when they arrived at the presidential Blue House at 11am, footage of Ms Kim carrying a blue folder emblazoned with a gold seal prompted fevered speculation that she was carrying a personal letter from her brother.
The younger Kim did not disappoint. Moon’s spokesman later confirmed that the letter stated Kim Jong-un’s “wish to improve inter-Korean relations.”
North Korean watchers also noted the presence of veteran negotiator, Kim Song-hye, indicated Kim’s genuine willingness to come to the table.
As the head of regime’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, Ms Kim has participated in numerous rounds of talks between the North and South, leading Pyongyang’s delegation at inter-Korean negotations in 2013.
The invitation is a personal political coup for Moon, who has long argued for engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table over its nuclear and weapons programme, but it threatens to create a wider between Seoul and its US ally.
While attending the Olympic Games, US Vice-President Mike Pence has gone out of his way to try to dampen enthusiasm about recent overtures, having previously warned that he would not allow Pyongyang to “hijack” the sports event with “propaganda.”
In an awkward moment during Friday’s Olympic celebrations, the vice-President skipped a ceremonial dinner which would have seated him directly opposite Kim Yong Nam.
At the opening ceremony, he and Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, sat as other leaders in the VIP box gave a standing ovation to the South and North Korean teams who were marching under a unified flag.
Washington is said to have been unhappy about a perceived lack of consultation from Seoul during talks with North Korea in January about its Olympic participation, and believes Kim’s recent peaceful overtures are a ruse to mitigate tough international sanctions.
But John Delury, a North Korea expert and professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, described Mr Pence’s approach to the trip as a “squandered” opportunity.
“I think it’s very unfortunate…It’s doing a lot of unnecessary damage by going overboard with undermining Seoul’s initiative. That looks like an unforced error to me,” he said.
“There can certainly be a healthy tension between Washington’s approach and Seoul’s but you don’t want to have this kind of open discombobulation.”
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) February 10, 2018
Mr Delury said it was likely that President Moon would attend the summit. “When there is political will in both Koreas, they can move quickly. They have their own relationship, and you can see especially the US is going to be struggling with this,” he countered.
The fast-pace diplomacy mixing sports and politics on the sidelines of the Olympics has prompted a mixed reaction within South Korea’s vocal press.
An editorial in the left-leaning Kyunhyang Shinmun denounced Mr Pence’s behaviour as “unacceptable” and “disrespectful” to South Korea. “There are other ways than this to send a message to North Korea,” it said.
But the conservative Chosun Ilbo said that the vice president was “right to remind us of North Korea’s atrocities” and the Maeil Business News said recent developments were a “diplomatic disaster” for Moon, who was “sandwiched” between North Korea and the US.
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