North Korea and US rule out talks as South hosts Winter Olympics

Inter-Korean talks the most likely as Kim Jong-un's sister heads to Pyeongchang

North Korean cheerleaders arrive to participate in a welcoming ceremony for North Korea’s Olympic team at the Olympic Village in Gangneung, South Korea on Thursday. Photograph:  Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean cheerleaders arrive to participate in a welcoming ceremony for North Korea’s Olympic team at the Olympic Village in Gangneung, South Korea on Thursday. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

 

After months of tension over North Korea’s nuclear programme, athletes and senior leaders have gathered in Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics, which South Korea hopes will form the backdrop for talks about easing the crisis.

Any contact between North Korea and the US would mark a major advance but both Pyongyang and Washington say, publicly at least, that there will be no contact on the sidelines of the games.

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in believes the games could help to bring North Korea to the table for talks about the nuclear crisis.

Mr Moon will lunch on Saturday with North Korea’s 22-strong delegation, which includes the titular head of state, Kim Yong-nam, and Kim Yo-jong, the powerful younger sister of leader Kim Jong-un.

Ms Kim will be the first member of her family, which has ruled North Korea for three generations, to travel to South Korea. Her grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, is the man who ordered the invasion of South Korea in 1950.

Since that war ended without a peace treaty in 1953, the two Koreas have been bitter rivals. In the Pyeongchang games, they will march under a unified flag at the opening ceremony on Friday.

There is speculation on social media in South Korea about whether Ms Kim will meet Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, or US president Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is attending the closing ceremony.

An all-woman North Korean marching band staged a performance at the Olympics venue on Thursday, and a taekwondo demonstration team has arrived for the games, which will feature North Korean athletes and a unified women’s ice hockey team.

The mountain resort of Pyeongchang is located just 80km from the heavily fortified demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas.

The hawkish view is that the North Koreans are taking a conciliatory stance to put pressure on the alliance between the US and South Korea.

Pence presence

US vice-president Mike Pence is travelling to Seoul to attend the opening ceremony and while he has not ruled out talking to North Korea at the games, the state department said there would be no contact on the sidelines.

Mr Trump is pushing a “maximum pressure” campaign with economic and diplomatic sanctions to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

Mr Pence stuck to the Trump administration’s hard-line script in remarks he made as he left Japan on Thursday.

“We’ll continue to seize every opportunity to ensure that North Korea does not use the powerful imagery and backdrop of the Olympics to paper over an appalling record of human rights and a pattern of developing weapons and conducting in the kind of missile launches that are threatening our nation and threatening neighbours across the region,” he told reporters.

The North Koreans also appeared to rule out any US-North Korean talks.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the US and will be the same in the future,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported, citing Cho Yong-sam, a senior official at the North’s foreign ministry.

“We clearly state that we don’t have a willingness to meet with the US side during our visit to South Korea.”

Military parade

While ties are warmer, there was a reminder of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions when it staged a military parade to mark the founding day of its armed forces on the eve of the games. The parade was somewhat more low-key than previous demonstrations and both Pyongyang and Seoul played down the significance of the event.

To facilitate the attendance of several senior functionaries from the North, South Korea has allowed some exemptions to sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear programme, although the foreign ministry in Seoul said these would apply only during the Pyeongchang games.

Kim Yo-jong is on a US blacklist because of her propaganda work, while Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee, is sanctioned by the UN.