Asia Pacific / Politics

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invites South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for summit


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a summit in Pyongyang, Seoul said Saturday.

The invitation, delivered by Kim’s visiting sister, Kim Yo Jong, said he is willing to meet Moon “at the earliest date possible,” a spokesman for the presidential Blue House said.

An inter-Korean summit would be the third of its kind, after Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, met South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 — both times in Pyongyang.

After months of silence on whether it would even take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which had their opening ceremony Friday, nuclear-armed North Korea has gone on a charm offensive, dispatching athletes, performers and Kim’s sister plus other diplomatic delegates to the South.

Moon met Kim Yo Jong and the North’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, for talks and lunch at the Blue House on Saturday.

“Special envoy Kim Yo Jong delivered a personal letter” from her brother stating his “wish to improve inter-Korean relations,” said Moon spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom, and verbally conveyed Kim’s invitation to Moon “to visit the North at his most convenient time.”

Moon has long argued for engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambitions, but did not immediately accept the offer.

Moon called for efforts to “create the right conditions to realize” such a visit, his spokesman said, urging Pyongyang to more actively seek dialogue with the U.S.

“It is absolutely necessary for the North and the United States to engage in talks at an early date,” he cited Moon as saying.

Washington has long insisted the North must show a willingness to denuclearize before any negotiations — which Pyongyang says it will never do.

The talks over lunch by Moon and his delegation with the delegation of top North Korean officials at Seoul’s presidential palace was the most significant diplomatic encounter between the rivals in years.

It came after Kim Yo Jong and other North Korean delegates attended the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

At the Olympic Stadium’s VIP box, Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam took their place among other dignitaries from around the world, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who sat less than a meter away and seemed to make an effort not to acknowledge them.

South Korean television showed a smiling Moon entering a reception room and shaking hands with the North Koreans. Their delegation included Choe Hwi, chairman of the country’s National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North’s agency that deals with inter-Korean affairs.

Moon was joined by his national security director, Chung Eui-yong, chief of staff Im Jong-seok, National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon and Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon.

Moon is desperate to use the games as an opportunity to restore regular communication with North Korea and eventually pull it into talks on resolving the standoff over its nuclear program.

Moon had already put a summit offer on the table. The first liberal president in a decade, Moon said during his inauguration speech last year that he would be willing to visit Pyongyang and meet with Kim Jong Un if that helps solve the nuclear problem.

Kim Yo Jong, 30, was the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Analysts say the North’s decision to send her to the Olympics shows eagerness to break out from diplomatic isolation by improving relations with the South, which it could use as a bridge for approaching the United States.

As first vice director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim has been an increasingly prominent figure in North Korea’s leadership and is considered one of the few people who has earned her brother’s absolute trust.Saturday’s meeting was the first time a South Korean president has hosted North Korean officials for a luncheon at the Blue House since November 2007, when the late liberal President Roh, the political mentor of Moon, invited North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il following a meeting with government officials in Seoul.

North Korean senior officials Kim Ki Nam and Kim Yang Gon also visited the Blue House in 2009 and met with Roh’s conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak, after leading a delegation to the South to pay respects at the funeral of Kim Dae-jung, who held the first inter-Korean summit.

No member of North Korea’s ruling family had ever before visited the Blue House, which is near where North Korean founder Kim Il Sung — Kim Yo Jong’s grandfather — sent dozens of commandos to assassinate former South Korean military strongman Park Chung-hee in 1968. Most were killed near the palace, which was newly rebuilt in 1991.

Moon and Kim Yo Jong broke out in broad smiles as they shook hands before the start of the opening ceremony at Pyeongchang’s Olympic Stadium. Moon had earlier met Kim Yong Nam during a dinner he hosted for dignitaries.

Moon and the two North Korean delegates cheerfully clapped and waved as the athletes from the two Koreas jointly marched during the ceremony holding a blue-and-white flag symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula. Pence and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat nearby, looking expressionless.

Critics say it is unclear whether revived dialogue between the Koreas could lead to immediate breakthrough on the nuclear stalemate when it seems unlikely that the North would be willing to give up its nukes under any deal.

There is worry too that the proposed summit Pyongyang may come with preconditions — a North Korean specialty. A big one could be a demand to cease the U.S.-South Korean war games that North Korea claims are preparation for invasion. They will start in March, and Washington has so far been adamant that they are crucial.

Moon will also have to convince a good portion of his own people who are deeply wary about North Korean intentions. Add to that the accusations that South Korea had to arrange huge payouts for the past meetings and that these earlier encounters have done little to slow North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

As if to drive the point home, Kim Jong Un used the eve of the Olympics to throw a massive military parade in Pyongyang that was highlighted by several huge intercontinental ballistic missiles rolled out on launcher trucks. Analysts say that the missiles, which were successfully flight-tested three times last year, could potentially reach deep into the U.S. mainland when perfected. The North also last year conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date.

In a meeting hours before Friday’s opening ceremony, Abe warned Moon not to fall for North Korea’s “smile diplomacy” during the Olympics, according to Moon’s office. Pence carried a similar message during his trip to Japan and South Korea.

Abe discussed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and brought up the issue of Japanese who were abducted by the North decades ago when he shook hands and briefly spoke with Kim Yong Nam during the dinner hosted by Moon in Pyeongchang, Kyodo News quoted the Japanese government as saying.

After the opening ceremony, the North Korean delegates moved to Seoul and spent the night at the Walkerhill hotel, a riverside facility named after the late U.S. Army commander Walton Walker, who is considered a Korean War hero in the South. It was built in the 1960s as a luxury facility for U.S. troops stationed in the South.

The North Korean delegates later Saturday may attend the debut of the first-ever inter-Korean Olympic team at the women’s ice hockey tournament in Gangneung. They may also see a performance by a visiting North Korean art troupe in Seoul on Sunday before flying home.

The North has sent nearly 500 people to the Pyeongchang Games, including officials, athletes, artists and also a 230-member state-trained cheering group.