Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea, will make a visit to South Korea on the opening day of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, leading the North Korean high-ranking delegation. As he is the nominal head of state, second in line behind Kim Jong Un under the North Korean constitution, Kim Yong Nam will be the highest ranking North Korean official visiting South Korea. South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae says it is seeking to hold a one-on-one meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yong Nam. Eyes are on whether there will be a meeting between Kim Yong Nam and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who will visit South Korea to attend the opening ceremony.
The 90-year-old Kim is the ceremonial head of state officially representing North Korea. In 2000, when the two Koreas held a summit meeting, Kim Jong Il said he would send Kim Yong Nam first before making a visit to Seoul. To be sure, the South will extend warm hospitality to Kim Yong Nam and treat him with respect, but it will not be easy to get any results from the talks with Kim Yong Nam, who has no real authority. Furthermore, staging a huge military parade the day before the opening ceremonies and propagating peace the next day in Pyeongchang is a move that makes one doubtful about the North’s sincerity.
In its third “late-night notification” late Monday night, North Korea said that it would use the Mankyongbong 92, a ship that can also serve as a hotel, to send Kim Yong Nam and other performers. This is obviously intended to neutralize the South Korean government’s 5·24 measures as well as international sanctions against the North. Seoul is planning to make an exception for the Olympics but it should consult with the international community to prevent any misunderstanding.
North Korea’s decision to send Kim Yong Nam can be seen as its tactic to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. The United States remains skeptical about North Korea-U.S. talks. Mike Pence has made it clear that he will not “allow North Korea’s propaganda to hijack the messaging of the Olympics." In this regard, the father of Otto Warmbier, who was jailed in North Korea and died six days after returning to the United States, has been invited by Pence to attend the opening ceremony.
To establish a momentum in the North Korea-U.S. relations, Kim Jong Un should send a sincere message via Kim Yong Nam. At least showing his willingness to talk about denuclearization and improvement of relations will lay the groundwork for North Korea-U.S. dialogue before the Paralympics end in March. Kim Jong Un should not miss this golden opportunity. Otherwise, there will be even bigger crises on the Korean Peninsula after the PyeongChang Olympics.