North Korea is to send its highest ranking official ever to the South, amid an ongoing thaw in relations over the Winter Olympic Games.
Kim Yong-nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state, will arrive in South Korea this Friday as the head of a 22-member high level delegation representing Pyongyang.
South Korean officials said they welcomed the arrival of Mr Kim, 90, the president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber stamping parliament, as a signal of the North’s “goodwill” to improve inter-Korean relations, although experts say it is unlikely to have any impact on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
“Given Kim Yong-nam is responsible for summit diplomacy as the head of state by the constitution, the North appears to show some sincerity to the South in its own way,” a presidential official told the Yonhap news agency.
It is not known whether Mr Kim will attend the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday evening in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, where he would potentially be rubbing shoulders with US Vice-President Mike Pence and other global leaders.
The two Koreas will march under one flag as the Games open, and will later be fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team.
Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, is hoping that the US and North Korea could hold talks on the margins of the sports event. A presidential aide said he would meet “spontaneously” with Mr Kim, although no formal one-to-one had been planned.
Mr Moon already has a busy schedule of diplomatic meetings, including with the Swiss President Alain Berset, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Han Zheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of China’s Communist Party, Mike Pence, US Vice-President, and Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General.
He will also meet Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, who is among leaders who are questioning what will unfold in the region after the games come to an end.
Mr Ab is preparing to welcome Mr Pence to Tokyo on Tuesday for a three-day trip ahead of the Olympics. He reportedly plans to urge both the US and South Korea not to scale down annual joint military drills which were rescheduled last month until after the games have finished.
Mr Abe is keen to press ahead with the exercises, which Pyongyang have condemned as preparation for an invasion, in order to sustain pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile development, according to Kyodo news agency.
North Korea war puff
Tensions remain high between the US and North Korea over Kim Jong-un’s missile and nuclear programmes, with many in Washington wary of Pyongyang’s motives for participating in the Games.
Some believe the sudden decision in January to send a delegation of athletes, officials, cheerleaders and entertainers, is part of a diplomatic manoeuvre to ease the impact of toughening economic sanctions on the regime.
Mr Pence would not allow North Korean propaganda to “hijack” the Olympics with propaganda, but would point out “the reality of the oppression in North Korea by a regime that has enslaved its people”, an aide told the website Axios on Sunday.
It later emerged that Fred Warmbier, the father of student Otto Warmbier, who died after being incarcerated by Pyongyang and returning to the US in a coma, will attend the Olympics with Mr Pence.
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