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(News Focus) Will PyeongChang Olympics pave way for N.K.-U.S. talks?

2018/02/05 14:16

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By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Feb. 5 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's plan to send its titular head of state to the South for the upcoming Winter Olympics has drawn fresh attention to whether the sports event will set the stage for direct contact between Pyongyang and Washington.

North Korea on Monday confirmed that Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, will head its high-level delegation to participate in the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics. It will also be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence among other government representatives.

South Korea has expressed hope that the Olympics will not only restore inter-Korean ties but pave the way for long suspended dialogue between North Korea and the United States, and catalyze the resumption of talks for the North's denuclearization.

Experts said that it remains unclear whether the meeting on the sidelines of the Olympics will be realized, as the two sides have not been showing any signs of budging on the nuclear issue and the U.S. has been strongly rejecting any such idea.

The North Korean delegation will start a three-day visit Friday, when the Winter Olympics will kick off.

The North notified the South on Sunday that the team will also include three officials and 18 supportive staffers, though it did not provide information on who will accompany the 90-year-old Kim.

Kim is known for his lifelong career in diplomacy and seen relatively unrelated to the North's nuclear and missile programs, which analysts speculate could be understood for positive signs for possible talks with the U.S.

There had been speculation that Choe Ryong-hae, North Korea's de facto No. 2 official and vice chairman of the ruling party's central committee, could be named as head of the high-level delegation.

Unlike Choe and some others cited as possible delegates, Kim is not placed on global blacklists, which also could make it relatively comfortable for the U.S to consider meeting the North Korean official, experts said.

"The North seems to have picked him as the head of the delegation given his long government career and the fact that he is not placed on those blacklists unlike other frequently cited people," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

"This can be construed as the North's veiled intention to advance its ties with the South and also carry out peace diplomacy with the U.S., Japan and the international community during the Winter Olympics," he added. "In this sense, it can be said that chances for North Korea-U.S. talks have increased albeit not significantly."

   Yang, however, cautioned against hoping too much from any possible meeting between the North and the U.S. given their deep-rooted mistrust of each other and a "sea difference" in their stance on how to resolve the North's nuclear problems.

"Chances are very slim that a single meeting will resolve all the problems. A meeting, if any, would only have a symbolic meaning," he noted.

Kim Yong-nam's visit to the South came after a flurry of inter-Korean talks last month aimed at discussing the participation of the North's athletes in the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The liberal Moon Jae-in government is hoping that the Olympics will help improve inter-Korean ties and translate into meaningful talks between the U.S. and the North on the latter's nuclear and missile programs.

There were encouraging signs earlier. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in December suggested talks "without preconditions" with the North, though he later backpedaled, saying the North should halt its "threatening behavior" before talks can begin.

South Korea urged the North to come out to the negotiating table, saying it is the "best time" for the North to do so given what was regarded as the lowest barrier to entry to talks with the U.S.

"Now is the best time, as the U.S. opens its door for talks," a high-ranking foreign ministry official told a group of reporters on condition of anonymity in mid-January. "The U.S. could close the door shut anytime. It is important for the North to stop provocations and come out for talks."

   This had spawned cautious optimism that there could be some kinds of contacts between the U.S. and the North on the margins of the Olympics.

Things, however, have turned around for the worse as high-ranking U.S. officials recently voiced their strong objections to any kinds of contacts with the North.

Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Voice of America recently that there are no plans to meet with North Korean officials.

U.S. Vice President Pence also said that he comes to the South to convey the message that the "strategic patience" of the previous Barack Obama government is over. He is also said to have asked South Korea to arrange his trip in a way that he could avoid any encounters with the North Koreans.

Experts said that it is critical for South Korea to maintain close coordination with the U.S. and restrain from excessively pushing for contacts with the North at a time when Washington has shown reluctance.

"It seems that the U.S. position on all of this is very important," said James Kim, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies."

   "Despite many reports about who is going to lead the North's delegation, including many high-ranking officials, the U.S. stance has been stern and adamant. Things are quite sensitive here. We should approach this matter with much caution and through close coordination with the U.S.," he added.

Yet another potential roadblock might be the North's planned military parade to commemorate its army founding day. It depends on its size and kinds of weapons it will show off to the world, a day before the Olympics kick off.

Otherwise, they cautiously hoped that it could give a face-saving reason for the U.S. to lean toward talks with the North.

"When it is important to give a justification (for the U.S. to come out for talks), the North's display of such weapons aimed at the U.S. as the Hawsong-14 or Hwasong-15 could make it more difficult," said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

"But if the North does not do that, nor does it intentionally showcase its ICBM-class missiles (during the parade), this could give a reason to the U.S. to lean toward talks and raise the possibility for a meeting between the two countries," he said.

kokobj@yna.co.kr

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