World News

Top North Korean Official Will Visit South Korea During Olympics

Posted February 4, 2018 6:44 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2018 6:48 p.m. EST

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea plans to send a high-level government delegation to South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics this week, South Korean officials said Sunday.

The 22-member delegation will be led by Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korean Parliament, the South Korean government announced, citing a notice it received from the North late Sunday.

The group’s three-day visit will start Friday, when the opening ceremony will be held in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang.

Kim, who is not related to Kim Jong Un, the country’s supreme leader, is often referred to as North Korea’s nominal head of state because he receives visiting heads of state, approves the credentials of ambassadors and represents North Korea on state visits abroad. He led the North Korean delegation to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

At 90, he is the oldest member of the North Korean leadership, though his role is largely ceremonial, with power concentrated in Kim Jong Un, the country’s “monolithic” leader.

Kim Jong Nam is expected to meet President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, whose government has been hoping for a high-level delegation from Pyongyang. It was not immediately clear whether Kim would carry a letter or message from Kim Jong Un.

Since taking power last May, Moon has been eager to start dialogue with North Korea to ease tensions.

His efforts received a leg-up when Kim Jong Un expressed his willingness during his New Year’s Day speech to send athletes to the Olympics. That led to a series of talks in which the two Koreas agreed to march together in the opening ceremony and field a joint team in women’s ice hockey, the first ever inter-Korean Olympic team.

Moon is also scheduled to meet with Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who will lead their countries’ Olympic delegations to South Korea. Both Washington and Tokyo have warned that efforts to improve dialogue between the Koreas should not weaken the enforcement of sanctions that the United Nations has imposed on the North for its nuclear and missile tests.

Kim Jong Nam is one of the few top aides to Kim Jong Un who have not been blacklisted for involvement in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. He is also one of few senior officials to have been spared in the frequent purges Kim Jong Un has engineered in recent years to eliminate elites considered insufficiently loyal.

Some analysts expected Kim Jong Un to allow Choe Ryong Hae, a senior party official widely considered his right-hand man, to lead the North Korean delegation to Seoul this week despite his being blacklisted by the South Korean government.

Kim Yong Nam will be the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit South Korea since Choe and two other senior officials attended the closing ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games in the South Korean city of Incheon.