SEOUL/PYEONGCHANG: South Korean President Moon Jae-in met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister on Saturday, hoping to translate Olympics detente into meaningful progress towards resolving a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Moon hosted talks and a lunch with Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Kim Yo-jong arrived in South Korea on Friday for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the alpine resort town of Pyeongchang, where she had her first face-to-face encounter with Moon.
They shook hands and cheered for athletes from the two countries who marched under a unified peninsula flag for the first time in a decade.
Moon’s desire to engage North Korea was in contrast to his US ally.
US Vice President Mike Pence also attended the opening ceremony but had no contact with the North Korean delegation.
Some North Korean experts believe tough UN sanctions that are cutting off most of the isolated regime’s sources of revenue might pressure Pyongyang to further engage with Seoul.
“I think this overture towards South Korea is partly sanctions-related, and also related to the fact that 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 for a summit or any kind of serious talks to occur, Moon needs to be able to take something to Washington – something that addresses denuclearisation,” he said.
North Korea conducted its largest nuclear test last year and said it had developed a missile capable of carrying a warhead to the United States. US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leadership traded insults as tensions rose.
Pence 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 in an interview, maintaining all options were open to deal with the crisis.
“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,” he said.
In Washington, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi told Trump that China hoped it and the United States could increase their coordination on the North Korea issue.
The United States has repeatedly pressed China, North Korea’s most significant trading partner and main ally, to do more to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
An official travelling with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Pyeongchang told reporters the Japanese government believed sanctions were “starting to bite”, citing recent instances of ship-to-ship transfers at sea.
The two Koreas have a rocky and sometimes violent history at the Blue House. In January 1968, Kim Yo Jong’s grandfather, founding North Korean president Kim Il Sung, sent a squad of North Korean commandos to Seoul who tried unsuccessfully to kill then-president Park Chung-hee.
Kim Yo-jong 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 28-year-old is a crucial part of the North’s Games delegation led by Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state.
She shook hands with Moon and smiled faintly as the South Korean leader entered a meeting room at the Blue House on Saturday.
“I appreciate you stayed late out in the cold, are you all well?” Moon asked the delegation before reporters were ushered from the room.