SEOUL: South Korea said it approved the Winter Olympic visit by a sanctioned North Korean official, blamed for the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship, in the pursuit of peace and asked for public understanding.
Kim Yong Chol, the vice-chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, will lead a high-level delegation at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on Sunday. The delegation will also meet President Moon Jae-in.
Kim was previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency which South Korea blamed for the sinking of its navy corvette the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking.
“Under current difficult circumstances, we have decided to focus on whether peace on the Korean peninsula and improvement in inter-Korean relations can be derived from dialogue with (the visiting North Korean officials), not on their past or who they are,” said Unification Ministry Baik Tae-Hyun in a media briefing on Friday.
A South Korean lawmaker briefed by the country’s spy agency said on Friday that Kim was the “right person” for inter-Korean and denuclearisation talks, according to Yonhap news agency.
“Kim Yong Chol is the top official regarding inter-Korean relations and he is being accepted (here) as the right person to discuss various issues like easing military tension, improving inter-Korean ties and denuclearisation,” said Kang Seok-ho to Yonhap and other reporters.
Kim currently heads the United Front Department, the North’s office responsible for handling inter-Korean affairs.
His visit will coincide with a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who is scheduled to arrive in South Korea later on Friday to attend a dinner with Moon and later, the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony.
The Blue House has said there are no official opportunities for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet.
Protests against North Korea delegation
South Korea’s decision on Thursday to allow Kim, currently sanctioned by the United States and South Korea, across the border has sparked protest from family members of the dead Cheonan sailors and opposition parties.
Some 70 members from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party staged a protest in front of the presidential Blue House on Friday, demanding the government withdraw its decision.
“President Moon’s decision to accept the North’s facade of peace is a serious issue and it will go down in history as a crime eternal,” said the party in a statement.
A group of family members of those killed in the Cheonan sinking has said it will hold a press conference against the decision on Saturday.
Acknowledging public angst over Kim’s pending visit, Baik said the South’s stance that the Cheonan sinking was instigated by the North has not changed.
“However, what’s important are efforts to create actual peace on the Korean peninsula so this kind of provocations doesn’t occur again,” said Baik, adding the government would make “various efforts” to assuage the public’s concerns.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he wants to boost the “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” with South Korea after a high-level delegation returned from the Winter Olympics, while the United States has stressed the need to intensify pressure to force North Korea to give up his nuclear weapons.
Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of United Nations sanctions. However, it has now been more than two months since its last missile test in late November.