With the Winter Olympics at a close and as the clock ticks down toward the conclusion of the Winter Paralympics, when military tensions are expected to skyrocket, the Korean peninsula finds itself at the center of fast-moving diplomacy.

North-South Korean security dialogue took place at a Seoul hotel on Monday between the Vice Chairman of North Korea’s Central Party Committee, Kim Yong-chol, and Chung Eui-yong, the chief of South Korea’s National Security Office.

While details of what passed between them are scant, a South Korean presidential statement suggested that the talks were wide-ranging.

“The two sides noted the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games have provided a meaningful opportunity to realize the Olympic spirit of peace and unity, as well as for peace on the Korean Peninsula and the restoration of the South-North Korean relationship, and agreed to continue working together even after the end of the Olympics to enable the establishment of lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, sustainable development of the South-North relationship and cooperation with the international community,” the presidential Blue House said in a statement reported by Yonhap.

At the meeting, Kim repeated that North Korea was open to direct talks with Washington.

Moon urges US to accept North Korean offer

On Sunday, Kim attended the Olympiad closing ceremony. Before it, he indicated to South Korean President Moon Jae-in that North Korea is willing to enter direct negotiations with the United States – a meeting Moon has consistently called for.

“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” the White House responded on Sunday. However, Pyongyang has previously stated that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable.

On Monday, Moon, meeting in Seoul with visiting Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, indicated he thought Washington should take up Pyongyang’s offer. “There is a need for the United States to lower the threshold for talks with North Korea, and North Korea should show it is willing to denuclearize,” Moon was quoted as saying in a Blue House statement. “It’s important the United States and North Korea sit down together quickly.”

US President Donald Trump has followed Moon’s lead on talks, even indicating he would be willing to enter direct negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. No previous US president has ever held talks with a North Korean leader. All the same, Washington, announced on Friday yet another raft of sanctions against North Korea, infuriating Pyongyang.

Commando general is serious player, but no PR plan

In Seoul, Kim Yong-chol is proving a more low-key visitor than Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who visited South Korea for the Winter Olympiad opening ceremony. Kim, who is held to be central to her brother’s image management, passed on the latter’s invitation to Moon for a summit and generated swooning media coverage with her good looks and regal manner, although she did not appear to engage in more substantive diplomacy.

That behind-closed-doors role may fall to Kim Yong-chol. A central player in the regime, he is a badged general who formerly commanded the powerful and shadowy Reconnaissance General Bureau, which commands many of North Korea’s most potent asymmetrical assets, including espionage, special operations and cyber warfare units. He is also widely blamed in South Korean for two separate attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.

While the general is not nearly as photogenic as the leader’s sister, nobody can accuse the South Koreans of not trying to stage-manage a meeting at the Olympic closing ceremony on Sunday evening.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Closing ceremony - Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 25, 2018 - Ivanka Trump, U.S. President Donald Trump's daughter and senior White House adviser, and Kim Yong Chol of the North Korea delegation attend the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Ivanka Trump (left) was seated close by Kim Yong-chol at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympiad closing ceremony. Photo: Reuters / Lucy Nicholson

There, Kim – in dark coat and a Russian-style fur hat – was seated to the left and behind, but in close proximity to, the head of the visiting US delegation, Ivanka Trump. He was separated from a key player in her delegation – US Forces Korea Commander-in-Chief Vincent Brooks, who attended in full uniform – by a man who has been identified as Lee Jin-sung, president of South Korea’s Constitutional Court. Despite their proximity, however, no interaction between the two generals – or the two delegations – appeared to take place.

The Chung-Kim meeting on Monday took place in an unspecified Seoul hotel. That hotel could well have been the Sheraton Walker, which is situated on the eastern edge of the capital and therefore easy to secure against protesters, and has accommodated North Korean delegates in the past.

Whether delegates from the North are aware that the hotel is named after Walton Walker, a US general who died during the Korean War, or that the hotel complex started life as a recreation center for US troops stationed in Korea, is unknown.

Furious conservatives rally against Kim visit, Moon

Kim certainly did not appear in central Seoul, where thousands of conservatives, including the leader of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, rallied to protest his visit. Waving Korean and some American flags, the protesters – predominantly in their 50s and 60s, including a number dressed in military paraphernalia – waved placards reading “Kim Yong-chol visit: Moon Jae-in, friend of North Korea.”

One man held up a sign blaming Kim for the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died, and for the artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island, in which four South Koreans were killed. Kim has been accused by previous Seoul administrations of being a key figure behind the two deadly attacks, which both took place in 2010. “Kim Yong-chol is the main provocateur and criminal toward South Korea,” the placard read. “Devilish murderer visits South Korea, provoking South Korea fury.”

While there was no violence and the protests appeared well policed, emotions ran high, with some right-wingers apparently as angry with their own president as with North Korea. “Is Moon Jae-in a person? That bitch! He should die!” spat one protester.

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Retired South Korean marines display a sign accusing President Moon Jae-in of being a friend of North Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon

The liberal Moon has sought to use the Olympics as a breathing space and springboard for tension-reduction talks before combined South Korea-US military exercises take place in the spring. He is under pressure from Washington, and also outside parties including Japan, to resume these exercises and maintain “maximum pressure” on North Korea.

Thus far, Moon’s plan appears to be working. He has been rewarded with the re-opening of inter-Korean communication channels, the highest-level North Korean delegation ever to visit the South, and the current dialogue.

However, the time for a breakthrough is running out. Moon has not yet responded to Kim’s summit offer, but North and South Korean officials will meet on Tuesday to discuss the North’s participation at the Paralympics, which begin on March 9. Military exercises, and associated tensions, are expected soon after the Paralympics conclude on March 18.

Kim and his delegation are scheduled to return to North Korea on Tuesday.

Read: After the ‘Peace Olympics,’ time for the war games?