South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited to Pyongyang after lunch with Kim Jong-un’s sister
Moon is desperate to use the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to restore regular communication with North Korea and eventually pull it into talks over resolving the international stand-off over its nuclear programme
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang “at an early date”, South Korean officials said on Saturday, potentially setting up the first talks between Korean leaders in more than 10 years.
Any meeting would represent a diplomatic coup for Moon, who swept to power last year on a policy of engaging more with the reclusive North.
The recent detente, anchored by South Korea’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games, came despite an acceleration in the North’s weapons programme last year and pressure from Seoul’s allies, the US and Japan.
The invitation came during a lunch meeting Moon hosted with Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Kim Jong-un wanted to meet Moon “at an early date”, the Blue House said, quoting Moon as saying : “let’s create conditions to make it happen”.
Kim Yo-jong arrived in South Korea on Friday with Kim Yong-nam, the North’s nominal head of state, for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the alpine resort town of Pyeongchang.
They shook hands with Moon and cheered for athletes from the two countries who marched under a unified flag for the first time in a decade.
Some North Korean experts believe tough UN sanctions that are cutting off most of the isolated North’s sources of revenue have put pressure on Pyongyang to engage more with Seoul.
“I think this overture towards South Korea is partly sanctions-related, and also ... it’s clear a divergence has developed between Washington and Seoul’s most keenly desired goals in the near term,” said Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii. “The North Koreans should understand that ... Moon needs to be able to take something to Washington – something that addresses denuclearisation.”
Progress in communication between North and South Korea prompted concern in the Japanese government that Seoul may rush into dialogue with Pyongyang, scuttling the pressure campaign built up by Tokyo and Washington.
“South Korea might run off ahead on a course of dialogue,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told Kyodo news agency on Saturday.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters that dialogue between the two Koreas must be “based on the premise that North Korea will change its basic nuclear and missile policies”.
Moon’s desire to engage North Korea was in contrast to his US ally.
US Vice-President Mike Pence also attended the Games opening ceremony, said the United States and South Korea were closely aligned in their approach to dealing with North Korea.
“I am very confident, as President Trump is, that President Moon will continue to stand strongly with us in our extreme-pressure campaign,” Pence told NBC. “Make no mistake about it, the United States of America has viable military options to deal with a nuclear threat from North Korea but, that being said, we hope for a better path.”
Kim Yo-jong, 28, is the first member of the ruling Kim family bearing the bloodline of the sacred Mount Paektu, a centrepiece of the North’s idolisation and propaganda campaign, to cross the border into the South since the 1950-53 Korean war.
The delegations shared a lunch of dried pollack dumpling soup, a regional speciality of the only divided province on the Korean peninsula, and soju, a spirit popular on both sides of the heavily militarised border.
Moon and Kim Yong-nam planned to return to the Games venue to watch the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team – the first ever combined team at the Olympics – take on Switzerland, the Blue House said.