SEOUL: South Korean President Moon Jae-in will send a team of special envoys — including Seoul’s spy chief — to the North on Monday to push for talks between Washington and Pyongyang on nuclear weapons.
The delegation, announced by Moon’s office on Sunday, is the latest chapter in a remarkable Olympics-driven detente between the two Koreas.
An intense rapprochement saw the two foes march together at the South’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics that ended February 25, with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un sending his sister as a special envoy to the event.
Kim Yo Jong’s appearance at the Games’ opening ceremony made global headlines, marking the first visit to the South by a member of the Kim family since the end of the Korean war.
Moon has sought to use the Pyeongchang Games to open dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in the hopes of easing a nuclear standoff that has heightened fears over global security.
He chose five senior officials — including national security advisor Chung Eui-yong and spy chief Suh Hoon — to visit Pyongyang on Monday, Moon’s spokesman said.
Suh is a veteran in dealings with the North. He is known to have been deeply involved in negotiations to arrange two previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.
“The special delegates will have extensive discussions over issues including creating conditions for North-US talks to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and improving inter-Korea ties,” Yoon Young-chan told reporters.
The 10-member group — five top delegates and five supporting officials — would fly to the North’s capital Pyongyang Monday afternoon and return to Seoul on Tuesday, Yoon said.
Other members include Suh’s deputy at the National Intelligence Service as well as Chun Hae-sung, the vice minister of Seoul’s unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs.
They will meet with “high-level North Korean officials” during the two-day trip, and then fly to the US to explain the result of the talks to officials in Washington, Yoon added.
‘Lower the threshold’
Last year, the isolated and impoverished North staged its most powerful nuclear test and test-fired several missiles in defiance of UN sanctions. Pyongyang claims its inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) can now hit the US mainland.
The North’s leader Kim and US President Donald Trump also traded threats of war and personal insults, sending tensions soaring before a thaw in the run-up to the Winter Olympics.
Moon, who advocates dialogue with the North’s nuclear-armed regime, said last week that Washington needs to “lower the threshold for talks” with Pyongyang.
But the US has ruled out any possibility of talks before the North takes steps towards denuclearisation, and imposed what Trump hailed as the “toughest ever” sanctions on Kim’s regime late last month.
On Saturday, a foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang called on the US drop any preconditions for talks.
“The US is taking preposterous action by continuing to trumpet an insistence that it will not have dialogue unless a right condition is met,” the unnamed spokesman was quoted as saying by the state-run KCNA news agency.
The North has stressed that it had no intention of abandoning its nuclear arsenal, hailed by Kim as a “treasured sword of justice” to protect his nation from potential invasion by the US.
The ‘right’ conditions
Kim Yo Jong, during her visit last month, extended her brother’s invitation for Moon to visit Pyongyang for a summit.
But the South Korean president responded by stressing the importance of having the right “conditions” for talks, suggesting a step towards denuclearisation demanded by Washington.
The Pyongyang trip by his representatives may be a first step towards creating such conditions, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank, said in a statement.
“You can’t expect them to produce any major agreement with this trip alone, but maybe they could at least discuss ways to stop the North from conducting any more ICBM tests,” he said.
Pyongyang’s weapons tests, which demonstrated rapid progress in the country’s missile technology, alarmed the US and prompted calls by some in Washington to launch pre-emptive attacks on the North.
“They can start from there… in a bid to eventually discuss potential suspension of the North’s nuclear and missile activities in the future,” Cheong said.