SEOUL - In a surprise move, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with a blacklisted North Korean general for talks Sunday, just hours ahead of the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the presidential Blue House said.
The previously unannounced meeting with Kim Yong Chol, the head of the North Korean ruling party’s United Front Department and the suspected mastermind of a deadly 2010 naval attack, took place in Pyeongchang for about an hour from 5 p.m., a Blue House official said.
Yonhap News, citing Moon’s presidential office, reported that Kim told the South Korean president during the meeting that North Korea has “enough” willingness to hold talks with the United States.
The meeting came just hours after the eight-member North Korean delegation crossed the inter-Korean border to attend the closing ceremony, which U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka was also attending.
The visit by Kim Yong Chol is the final piece of the games-led diplomacy that has dominated headlines from Pyeongchang.
The nuclear-armed North has gone on a charm offensive in connection with the Olympics, sending athletes, cheerleaders and performers to the games, with leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong attending the opening ceremony.
Analysts say it is seeking to loosen the sanctions imposed against it over its banned nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, and trying to weaken the alliance between Seoul and Washington.
But Kim Yo Jong had no interaction with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony, even though the two were sitting just a few seats apart in the same VIP area, and according to the U.S., a planned meeting between the delegations from Washington and Pyongyang the following day was cancelled at short notice by the North Koreans.
Moon — who has long pushed for engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table — also did not immediately accept an invitation passed on by Kim Yo Jong from her brother to go to Pyongyang for a summit, saying the right conditions needed to be created.
Washington, which describes its approach to Pyongyang as “maximum pressure and engagement,” announced a raft of new sanctions against it Friday.
Pyongyang slammed those measures — which target more than 50 North Korea-linked shipping companies, vessels and trade businesses — as an “act of war,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The North said the sanctions are aimed at completely blocking its maritime trade amid reports that U.S. officials are pushing for an even further bolstered “maritime crackdown.”
“Like we have said repeatedly, we would consider any restrictions on us as an act of war, and we will stop the U.S. if it really has the nerves to confront us in a ‘rough’ manner,” the North’s Foreign Ministry added.
Pence also condemned Kim Yo Jong as part of an “evil family clique” and “murderous regime,” prompting a Sunday denunciation from Pyongyang, which at the time said it would not talk to the Trump administration for “even 100 years or 200 years.”
Kim Yong Chol’s nomination as the leader of the delegation is controversial in the South, where he is widely blamed for a spate of attacks including the torpedoing of Seoul’s Cheonan warship in 2010, with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang denies responsibility.
Conservative lawmakers staged an overnight protest near the border with the North, joined by hundreds of other activists.
Images showed the protesters waving banners including “Arrest Kim Yong Chol!” and “Kim Yong Chol should kneel in front of the victims’ families and apologize!”
He is blacklisted under Seoul’s unilateral sanctions against the North — meaning he is subject to an assets freeze — although he is not named in the U.N. Security Council’s measures.
Officials from both Seoul and Washington have said there will be no meeting between the delegation led by Kim Yong Chol and that of Ivanka Trump — who is traveling with Korea specialists from the U.S. administration and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
But the North’s delegation includes Choe Kang Il, the deputy director-general for North American affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, suggesting Pyongyang may be open to talks.
On Friday, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted 28 ships, 27 companies and one person, imposing an asset freeze and barring U.S. citizens from dealing with them, in what U.S. President Donald Trump described as the “heaviest sanctions ever” levied on Pyongyang.
The U.N. Security Council has already banned North Korean exports of coal — a key foreign exchange earner — iron ore, seafood and textiles, and restricted its oil imports.
Washington is also seeking to have the United Nations ban 33 vessels from ports worldwide and blacklist 27 shipping businesses for helping North Korea circumvent sanctions, in a bid to cripple North Korea’s maritime network.
Kim Yo Jong’s trip at the start of the games — the first visit to the South by a member of the North’s ruling dynasty since the Korean War ended in 1953 with a cease-fire on the divided peninsula — made global headlines.