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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korea has chosen Kim Yong Chol to lead its upcoming high-delegation to the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced on Thursday.
Pyongyang earlier in the day notified Seoul that it intends to send the delegation between February 25 and 27 in a letter under the name of chief delegate to the inter-Korean high-level talks and chairman of the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) Ri Son Gwon.
Seoul will accept the proposal, the MOU said.
“We expect the high-level delegation’s participation in the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics to help advance the process of settling peace on the Korean Peninsula including the improvement of inter-Korean relations and denuclearization,” the MOU said in a written statement.
“Against this backdrop, from this standpoint, we will accept the visit of the North Korean high-level delegation to the South.”
Pyongyang’s decision comes as a surprise: the Ministry of Unification (MOU) as recently as Wednesday said they had no new information to share regarding the possibility of a North Korean delegation attending the PyeongChang Closing Ceremony.
Kim Yong Chol serves as vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and director of the United Front Department of the WPK Central Committee.
He will be accompanied by Ri Son Gwon – who also participated in the North’s delegation to the opening ceremony – along with six supporting staff.
The announcement comes a few hours after the White House said it had chosen Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, to lead its Presidential delegation to the closing ceremony on Sunday.
She is set to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday evening.
The visit comes two weeks after a group led by President of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) Kim Yong Nam attended the PyeongChang Olympics Opening Ceremony and held talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
He was accompanied by first vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Kim Yo Jong, as well as Chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee Choe Hwi and Ri Son Gwon.
A landmark meeting between the delegation and President Moon saw Kim Yo Jong – the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – extend an invitation from her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang.
One South Korean expert said Sunday’s delegation may reiterate the invitation and propose further inter-Korean engagement.
“It is also predicted that they will make the detailed proposal on the schedule of the inter-Korean military talks and on civilian exchanges including the reunion event of separated families,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, told NK News.
Sunday’s delegation will travel to the South via the overland route of the Gyeongui Line, which is connected to now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).
Kim Yong Chol was blacklisted by the South Korean government in March 2016, when the Park Geun-hye administration announced unilateral sanctions banning financial transactions with designated entities and individuals.
He was also reported to have been demoted and forced to undergo ideological re-education in 2016, and previously serves as director of the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which has previously been accused of involvement in cyber-attacks and is the DPRK’s main foreign intelligence agency.
The U.S. Treasury Department designated him in August 2010 for this role, though he has not yet been included on a UN travel ban.
The South Korean government previously named Kim as one of the masterminds of the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, and amid heightened tensions in 2013, he appeared on Korean Central Television (KCTV) to read a statement by the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army threatening to nullify the Armistice Agreement.
He also served as the chief delegate to inter-Korean military talks in October 2014 – the most recent dialogue between military authorities from the two Koreas.
Edited by Oliver Hotham