Kim Yong-nam is president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea. Photo: Reuters / Marco Bello

Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s titular head of state, will attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea as diplomatic momentum gathers pace before the opening ceremony on February 9. His presence at the Games will be complicated, however, by the attendance of the father of a high-profile US victim of the regime.

The news of Kim’s visit was made public by South Korean officials late on Sunday night, and could portend a meeting with the visiting US Vice President Mike Pence.

The 89-year-old is the president of the Presidium of the North Korean People’s Assembly, the North’s legislature. He will be in South Korea from February 9-11, which indicates (though it has not been confirmed) that he will attend the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang on the 9th. Kim will be joined by three other high-level officials, whose identities were not disclosed, as well as 18 support staff. No information has yet been released about their itinerary.

The news is significant as, if he attends the opening ceremony, Kim will be in the company of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, US Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and dozens of other dignitaries.

Even so, North Korea watchers are downplaying expectations surrounding the visit of the superannuated Kim, whose background is in diplomacy.

“Kim is more a ceremonial head of state, so this is basically North Korea thinking there is no prospect of substantial talks taking place,” said Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute in Seoul. “But they want to give the impression to South Korea that they are attaching importance to Pyeongchang.”

With the identities of the other three high-level delegates undisclosed, speculation is rife, with some wondering if one of them might be Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. A politbureau member and propaganda expert, she is widely believed to be an important member of her brother’s brain trust. She would also be an appropriate foil for the so-far unidentified Trump family member that US President Donald Trump has indicated he might send to Pyeongchang.

Kim, Pence and Warmbier

If Kim meets Pence, it will be one of the highest-level meetings between North Korean and US delegations in history. Former president Jimmy Carter met the late leader Kim Il-sung in 1994 as an envoy for the Clinton administration, and then-serving US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met Kim Jong-il, the late father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in 2000.

If Kim and Pence do meet, one point of tension may be the inclusion in Pence’s delegation of Fred Warmbier, as reported in the Washington Post on Sunday.

Warmbier’s college student son, Otto, 21, was arrested while on a tour of North Korea in 2016 and imprisoned for “hostile acts.” It is unclear if he tried to steal a poster of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, or defaced it in some way. He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. In custody, his health deteriorated and in June 2017 he was deported, in a comatose state, to the United States, where he passed away among his family days later. The reason for his coma remains unknown. North Korea claims it was due to an allergic reaction; others have suggested it may have been caused by attempted suicide.

“I don’t think the South Korean government would like to see the father of a victim of North Korea at Pyeongchang, but I guess it does not have a choice”

Fred Warmbier and his wife Cindy, together with a North Korean defector who escaped the decrepit nation despite having lost two limbs, both featured in one of the more emotive moments in Trump’s State of the Union Address last week. Also last week, Trump met high-profile North Korean defectors at the White House in a pointed denouncement of the dire human rights conditions and woeful quality of life in North Korea.

None of this bodes well for North Korean-American interaction. The inclusion of the high-profile Warmbier in Pence’s delegation makes a particularly incisive point.

“I don’t think the South Korean government would like to see the father of a victim of North Korea at Pyeongchang, but I guess South Korea does not have a choice,” Go said. “What Pence is doing by bringing Warmbier undermines the goal of making Pyeongychang a turning point in inter-Korean dialogue, then evolving into dialogue between North Korea and the United States.”

Symbology versus risk

In related developments, the newly-integrated inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team lost a friendly match against Sweden, 3-1, at Incheon, near Seoul, on Sunday evening.

The team’s Canadian Coach, Sarah Murray, said the North Koreans had played well, but noted that it was “difficult” to integrate the visitors, who arrived in South Korea just 12 days before Sunday’s game, with her team. One problem is that North Koreans use different sports terminology to South Koreans. “Our meetings go from English to South Korean to North Korean,” said Murray at a press conference. “So the meetings take three times as long, it is very hard when you have three different languages on one team.”

While the two teams train together, they are living in separate accommodation in Pyeongchang.

The efforts to include North Koreans (who did not qualify for the Olympics) with the South Korean team (who were granted host-nation automatic qualification) has been controversial in South Korea, with many criticizing the decision, made by the South Korean government, to marry politics and sport.

Players from the inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team walk onto the ice before their friendly match against Sweden at the Seonhak International Ice Rink, in Incheon. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

A small anti-North Korean demonstration of around 50 persons, largely elderly conservatives, waved South Korean and US flags and chanted slogans outside the stadium. But inside, the team won a warm welcome, with young South Korean dancing and holding up signs reading, “We are one.”

In other symbolic moves, North and South Korean athletes will compete under a joint flag, representing the Korean peninsula, and will march into the stadium together.

The urgency of diplomatic efforts around the Games were given an added shot in the arm last week when Victor Cha, an academic who had been the Trump administration’s pick for the vacant US ambassadorial post in Seoul, was dropped for his criticism of the idea being floated in Washington of staging some kind of limited or “bloody nose” strike on North Korea. Cha, in a critique of any such strike that was published by the Washington Post just minutes before Trump’s State of the Union speech, warned that hundreds of thousands of US civilians in the region could become collateral casualties if North Korea responded and matters escalated.

Moon hopes that what he calls the “Peace Olympics” will provide a platform from which further negotiations between North Korea, South Korea and the international community can take place. However, sticks are being brandished at the same time as carrots are being dangled.

Seoul and Washington have both made clear that allied military drills – which raise Pyongyang’s ire every spring and which have been suspended for the Olympics – will resume after the Games. The Paralympics conclude on March 18.

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