North Korean leader Kim Jong-un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks in Pyongyang, South Korean officials said on Saturday, setting the stage for the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than 10 years.
That meeting would represent a diplomatic coup for Moon, who swept to power last year on a policy of engaging with the reclusive North.
The recent – and sudden – detente, anchored by South Korea‘s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games that began Friday, came about despite an acceleration in the North‘s weapons programs last year and pressure from the United States.
The personal invitation from Kim was delivered by his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, during talks and a lunch Moon hosted at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Kim Jong-un wanted to meet Moon “at an early date” and Moon had said “let’s create conditions to make it happen,” a presidential spokesman said, adding that Moon “practically accepted” the invitation.
“We would like to see you at an early date in Pyongyang,” Kim Yo-jong told Moon during the lunch, according to another Blue House official.
The prospect of two-way talks between the Koreas, however, may not be welcomed by the United States.
Washington has pursued a strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Pyongyang through tough sanctions and harsh rhetoric, demanding it give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Moon asked the North Korean delegation during Saturday’s meeting to engage in dialogue with Washington “at an early date,” the Blue House said.
Kim Yo-jong is the first member of the ruling Kim family – bearing the “bloodline of the sacred Mount Paektu,” a centerpiece of the North‘s idolization and propaganda campaign – to cross the border into the South.
The 28-year-old is a crucial player in the North‘s Games delegation led by Kim Yong-nam, North Korea‘s nominal head of state. She is believed to control access to her brother, and is a major player in shaping his image. She has been blacklisted by the United States for her connection to human rights abuses and censorship.
However, Moon and Kim appear to have hit it off. She shook hands with Moon and smiled faintly as the South Korean leader entered a meeting room at the Blue House on Saturday. “I appreciate you stayed late out in the cold, are you all well?” Moon asked the delegation before reporters were ushered from the room.
Later in the day, Moon and Kim travelled across the peninsula to the coastal city of Gangneung to watch the first match of the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team against Switzerland.
While the late South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun summited with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000 and 2007, the current delegation is the highest-level North Korean delegation ever to come to South Korea. The two states were established in 1948, following the division of the peninsula in 1945.
On Friday, there had been high hopes that the two senior North Koreans might – at the very least – have exchanged pleasantries with visiting US President Mike Pence. However – although the 90-year-old Kim was spotted chatting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a pre-opening ceremony dinner – that did not appear to happen last night, even though, at the opening ceremony, the Americans were sitting just a couple of meters away from the North Koreans.
There have been fears and warnings from pundits in both Seoul and Washington that the North Koreans seek to drive a wedge between the two allies with their Winter Games charm offensive.
But Pence himself has been taking a very, very hard line against North Korea on his current Asian tour.
After announcing the United States is about to hit North Korean with the toughest round of sanctions ever in Tokyo, he arrived in South Korea with Fred Warmbier, father of the student Otto Warmbier, who died last year after imprisonment in North Korea, in his entourage.
Yesterday, he visited the wreck of the Cheonan, the South Korean corvette sunk with great loss of life by a North Korean torpedo in 2010, where he was briefed by South Korean naval officers. The shattered hulk was raised from the Yellow Sea, and is now a memorial in the South Korean naval base at Pyeongtaek, close to the sprawling new US base rising at Camp Humphreys.
Pence and Warmbier also met with a group of North Korea defectors.
These moves do not signal a US move to reconcile with North Korea; more the opposite.