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South Korean President Moon Jae-in, from bottom left, first lady Kim Jung-sook, Ivanka Trump, and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong applaud as athletes from North and South Korea walk together during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, February 25, 2018. Standing at top right is Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee. Photo: AP

North Korea ‘ready’ for talks with US, says South’s president’s office

North Korea

The North Korean delegation to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics said Pyongyang was “willing to have talks” with the United States, South Korea’s Blue House said on Sunday night.

North Korea agreed that inter-Korean relations should “improve together” with relations between North Korea and the US, the Blue House said after an hour-long meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s chief representative, Kim Yong-chol, in Pyeongchang, on the sidelines on the Games. 

Kim Yong-chol arriving at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Photo: AP

The statement did not make any mention of North Korea’s nuclear programme or whether the dialogue would be about denuclearisation. But still, this is the first sign of willingness from North Korea in years, and it comes when the Trump administration has been signalling an openness to talk without conditions.

“President Moon pointed out the urgency to hold dialogue between North Korea and the US in order to fundamentally the resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula and to improve inter-Korean relations,” the Blue House said. “The North Korean delegation said that North Korea is willing to have talks with the US and the North agrees that inter-Korean relations and North Korea-US relations should advance together.”

President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korea’s delegation leader Kim Yong-chol and Ivanka Trump at the closing ceremony. Photo: Reuters

At the closing of the Games, the United States was being represented by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser. She was sitting in the VIP box next to Moon and his wife.

Ivanka was scheduled to leave South Korea without meeting any North Korean officials, according to the White House.

“The delegation congratulated [Moon] on an incredible Olympic Games and applauded throughout the ceremonies including for the US and South Korean athletes,” said a senior Trump administration official briefing reporters in Pyeongchang. “There was no interaction with the North Korean delegation.”

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North Korea’s delegation was led by Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of a key Communist Party committee dealing with inter-Korea relations and a former head of the North’s military intelligence service. He was in the row behind Trump, just as Kim Jong-un’s sister was in the row behind Vice-President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony.

It emerged last week that Pence had planned to meet Kim Jong-un’s younger sister on the sidelines of the opening ceremony, only for the plan to fall through at the last moment.

Ivanka Trump, just a few feet away from Kim Yong-chol. Photo: Reuters

After the aborted meeting during the opening, there was speculation about a working-level meeting between US and North Korean officials.

Trump is accompanied by Allison Hooker, the Korea director on the National Security Council and a key player in the White House’s policy on North Korea. Hooker met Kim Yong-chol, who was then head of the North’s military intelligence service, in Pyongyang in 2014 when she went there to secure the release of two Americans detained by the North Korean government. 

The surprise arrival on Sunday of one of North Korea’s top officials on Pyongyang’s policy on North Korea only fuelled speculation about a possible meeting between the officials.

Kim Yong-chol brought Choe Kang Il, deputy director of the US affairs division in North Korea’s foreign ministry. His attendance surprised analysts because his role has nothing to do with sport or inter-Korean relations. 

US General Vincent Brooks (second from left) and Kim Yong-chol (far right). Photo: AFP

Choe has taken part in talks with former American officials in recent years, including at a security-related forum in Switzerland last September. His boss in the US affairs division is thought to have a direct line to Kim Jong-un.

Choe and Hooker were not seen at the closing ceremony.

Some analysts said that a meeting between Hooker and Choe would be a good way to start easing tensions that have risen over the past year as North Korea has fired missiles and conducted a nuclear test, while the Trump administration has threatened military action to stop it.

“There is no reason for Allison Hooker to come, nor is there is there any reason for Choe Kang Il to be here,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “They’re both superfluous to the Olympic ceremonies and to inter-Korean relations.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: N Korea ‘willing to have talks’ with United States