The third meeting between North Korea and South Korea may answer a question with big implications for talks going forward: Who will represent Kim Jong Un at the Winter Games?
Negotiator teams began talks at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Peace House, on the south side of their shared border. While North Korea is unlikely to disclose its chief delegate to the Games at the Pyeongchang ski resort at the meeting, South Korean media and analysts speculate it could be led by either Kim’s No. 2 official or his sister.
Choe Ryong Hae, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, was elected as a member of the party’s military commission last year. With Choe currently under South Korea’s financial sanctions list, it’s unclear whether the 67-year-old would be allowed to travel to the Olympics, where he’d be able to mingle with senior foreign officials such as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
Kim Yo Jong, believed to be in her late 20s, shares the same mother as Kim Jong Un. While she was also promoted last year to the political wing of the Workers’ Party, their half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was murdered in February at a Malaysian airport with the chemical weapon VX. North Korea denies it played a role in the attack.
“If Kim Yo Jong were to come, it’ll be the first time for any Kim family member to visit South Korea,” said Shin Beomchul, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
“If the North sends a top official such as Choe Ryong Hae or Kim Yong Nam (president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea), they could at least exchange messages with Mike Pence on the sidelines,” Shin said. “They could hold conversations aimed at exploring talks.”
In last week’s first high-level talks in more than two years, the neighbors agreed to allow North Korea to send a delegation to the Olympics that start on Feb. 9. That group will include officials, athletes, a cheering squad, art performers, observers, martial artists and reporters.
South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said last week he expects the North Korean group to be “enormous” with as many as 500 people traveling south.
Kim Jong Un made the offer to send a delegation in his annual New Year address. While his olive branch is a break from hostile acts such as nuclear and missile tests, U.S.-South Korea military drills planned for after the Olympics could see Pyongyang crank up its provocations once more.
The two Koreas agreed Monday to allow Samjiyon, a 140-member orchestra, to perform concerts in Seoul and Gangneung, a vacation city near Pyeongchang.
At an International Olympic Committee meeting in Switzerland at the weekend, officials will decide on matters such as the number and names of North Korean athletes and Olympic officials, the committee said in a statement last week. It will also decide on participation protocol regarding the flag that North Korea will compete under, as well issues including the anthem, ceremonies and uniforms.