North Korea will send its nominal head of state to South Korea later this week to attend the Winter Olympic Games, which have provided a rare opportunity for the two Koreas to set aside long-running hostilities.
Since a thaw emerged in inter-Korean relations on New Year’s Day, athletes have exchanged visits to train jointly and diplomats have met to work out the details of North Korea’s participation in the Games, due to begin in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang on February 9.
But Pyongyang will now be sending Kim Yong-nam, the leader of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North Korean parliament, to attend the Games, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Sunday.
Kim will become the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the South since the Korean War ended in 1953, and his attendance will mark the zenith of the rapprochement that has emerged in the relations.
He will be leading a delegation of 22 officials on a three-day trip due to begin on Friday.
The two Koreas have long had strained ties. Tensions skyrocketed last year with repeated North Korean missile and nuclear tests and increased South Korean joint military action with the United States.
But the two neighbors launched rare talks in early January this year to bring North Koreans to the Pyeongchang Games after their leader Kim Jong-un expressed his willingness to open dialog with Seoul during his New Year’s speech.
Kim Yong-nam is not the subject of travel bans by the United Nations or the United States, both of which have imposed sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programs.
He attended the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
In 2014, Pyongyang sent Choe Ryong-hae — a close aide to Kim Jong-un — to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Choe was subjected to a unilateral ban by South Korea later in 2016.
In the name of unity, in the name of Korea
The South Korean Unification Ministry said on Monday that a North Korean art troupe will also likely travel by ship to perform during the Olympics under an exemption from bilateral sanctions.
Sanctions imposed in May 2010 ban all North Korean ships from docking at South Korean ports in response to a North Korean torpedo attack on a navy ship that killed 46 sailors.
The ministry said the North had proposed that the orchestra use the Mangyongbong 92, a ferry that chiefly operates between North Korea and Russia, for transportation and lodging. It said sanctions exemptions were also being sought.
“We’re seeking to apply an exemption for the May (2010) measures to support a successful hosting of the Olympics,” ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said.
Earlier, 12 female ice hockey players from the North started training with their southern counterparts in what will be the first unified Korean team in 27 years. They will parade together under the Korean Unification Flag, which features a blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula and its outlying islands.
The last time South Korea hosted an Olympics — in 1988 — Pyongyang refused to participate. Seoul’s hosting of the Games for the second time now has raised hopes of uniting the peninsula.
But some observers believe the thaw will not last much beyond the Games. Hostilities between the two Koreas run deep, dating back to the war in the early 1950s. Seoul also plans to resume joint drills with Washington after the Olympics. The maneuvers are a major irritant to Pyongyang which calls them “rehearsals for invasion.”
The resumption of joint US-South Korea drills will almost certainly trigger the resumption of the North Korean missile launches, which have stopped since bilateral overtures began in January .
There have also been small protests against the North’s participation in the Olympics by some South Koreans.
Japan protests over inclusion of disputed islands in Unification Flag
Meanwhile, on Monday, Japan said it had protested to South Korea over the inclusion of a set of disputed islands in the Unification Flag.
The flag shows a dot in blue — the same color as the two Koreas — indicating the disputed islands in the Sea of Japan, which are controlled by South Korea but claimed by Tokyo.
The islets are known as “Dokdo” in Korean and “Takeshima” in Japanese.
“The flag is unacceptable, based on our stance on our sovereignty of Takeshima,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters. “We filed a protest strongly insisting on our stance through diplomatic channels to South Korea.”