North Korea sends titular head of state to South for Olympics

Kim Yong-nam will be the North's most senior official ever to visit South Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un followed by president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam after a military parade in Pyongyang in May 2016. Kim Yong-nam will represent the North at the Winter Olympics. Photograph:  Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un followed by president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam after a military parade in Pyongyang in May 2016. Kim Yong-nam will represent the North at the Winter Olympics. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

 

North Korea will send its ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, to the Winter Olympics at the head of its delegation, and South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in may hold a one-on-one talk with him.

The Pyeongchang games in South Korea are shaping up to be a highly politically charged event, as the arrival of North Korean athletes for training ahead of the games has been accompanied by speculation about possible US-North Korea talks over the nuclear crisis.

The 90-year-old Kim’s official title is president of the praesidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a role he has carried out since 1998. He is the most senior North Korean politician to visit South Korea.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted an anonymous North Korean defector saying: “As Kim is known to be acting and speaking under the country’s guidance, he makes no mistakes . . . that’s why he could keep his high-level post in a country where political purges are common.”

Also attending Friday’s opening event will be US vice-president Mike Pence, accompanied by Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto was jailed by North Korea and died shortly after his comatose return to the US.

US president Donald Trump hosted the Warmbier parents at last week’s State of the Union address.

According to a report in the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, Mr Pence has asked Seoul to make sure he doesn’t have contact with any North Korean officials at the ceremony.

One flag

Both Koreas are expected to march under one flag at the opening ceremony, and the past few days have seen North Korean athletes train and compete with their South Korean counterparts. A unified Korean women’s ice hockey team was beaten 3-1 by Sweden.

The North Koreans are sending a delegation in the hundreds, including a taekwondo martial arts team, an orchestra, a team of cheerleaders and other performers.

There had been speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might choose his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, as the representative, making her the first member of the Kim family to visit South Korea.

Even though she has been a rising star in the political firmament, she is also the subject of sanctions by South Korea and choosing her would have been seen as a provocation.

North Korea is subject to sanctions of many kinds – bilateral ones by South Korea, Japan and other countries, as well as United Nations sanctions, because of its nuclear weapons programme.

Pyongyang had suggested that it send a cultural delegation by ferry to the Olympics, but there has been a ban on North Korean ships from entering South Korean ports since 2010.

Observers are watching to see what kind of parade North Korea puts on to mark its army founding day, one day before the games begin.