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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang and is ready to meet soon, Seoul’s Blue House said on Saturday.
It would be the first such summit since 2007, at which then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with then-DPRK leader Kim Jong Il, and the third since the Korean War.
The invitation was delivered by the DPRK leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, during a visit by a high-level North Korean delegation to the Blue House – the first such visit by DPRK officials in eight years.
“Special envoy Kim Yo Jong delivered the personal letter of chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong Un which includes the willingness to improve the South-North relations,” presidential spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said.
“[She] verbally delivered the intention of chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong Un’s invitation that ‘he is willing to meet President Moon Jae-in at an early date and request to visit North Korea at your convenience.'”
It remains unclear whether the South Korean President has accepted the invitation, however, with Blue House saying that Moon had “expressed willingness to clinch it by establishing conditions in the future.”
Earlier in the year he expressed a desire to visit North Korea “at any time” subject to conditions that included discussions on the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
“I am open to any form of meeting, including a summit, if these are necessary to improve inter-Korean relations and resolve the North Korean nuclear issue,” Moon told more than 200 reporters at the Blue House in January.
“But there should be conditions for the summit to take place, and the results should be guaranteed to some extent,” he added. “If conditions are met and there are hopes, I am ready to engage in the summit at any time.”
When asked to clarify what these conditions would be, the Blue House on Saturday said Moon wanted the two Koreas to “create the environment first for that (the visit) to be able to happen.”
The two sides on Saturday also discussed the possibility of talks between Pyongyang and the U.S. in the near future.
“President Moon especially requests for the North to actively come forward to dialogue with the U.S. saying ‘talks between the North and the U.S. early are needed for the improvement of the inter-Korean relations,'” Blue House spokesperson Kim said.
Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong also signed a guestbook in the Blue House, with the former writing that “It’s the national people’s desire to putting efforts for the unity and confidence in aiming unification” and the latter writing “I hope that Pyongyang and Seoul get closer to heart of our nation and make the future of unification prosperity earlier.”
Kim Jo Yong was also quoted as having said during the inter-Korean luncheon that she hoped DPRK-ROK relations “can be rapidly improved, as yesterday is the old days.”
“I hope the President will put a footprint which can be long remembered by the coming generations by playing a leading role in opening the new chapter of unification,” she said.
One expert said that although the agreement on Saturday will likely postpone the renewal of tensions between North Korea and the U.S., “the fundamentals have not changed.”
“It can help to win time,” Andrei Lankov, a Director of the Korea Risk Group, said. “It can postpone the revival of highly dangerous tensions, for a few weeks or a few months and this is good.”
“But it’s highly unlikely that anything substantial will be agreed between North Korea and South Korea,” he added. “Because all agreements have to be between North Korea and the United States right now: they are the two parties which are driving the tension.”
The delegation, which arrived in South Korea via private jet on Friday, was led by Kim Yong Nam, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
He is joined by Kim Yo Jong, who serves as first vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), as well as Chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee Choe Hwi and Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) Ri Son Gwon.
They will return to the North on Sunday.
One South Korean expert said Kim Jong Un was seeking to help North Korea in “escaping from a serious international isolation.”
“Chairman Kim Jong Un moved away from the original negative stance on the inter-Korean summit and change his stance of holding the summit without conditions,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, told NK News.
“It desirable for President Moon to have a frank dialogue with Chairman Kim rather than demand the North’s concession in advance on the issue of denuclearization.”
In addition to the South Korean President, the North Koreans were met on Saturday by Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon, Chief of National Security Council (NSC) Chung Eui-yong, and Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok.
Director of the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) Suh Hoon was also present, though he did not appear on a list of attendees provided by the Blue House to journalists on Friday.
Moon and Kim Yong Nam are set to attend the first match of a joint North-South women’s ice hockey team against Switzerland on Saturday at Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung, Gangwon Province.
The meeting represented the most high-level North Korean delegation visit to the Blue House since August 2009, when Kim Ki Nam and the late Kim Yang Gon met then-ROK President Lee Myung-bak during a condolence visit following the death of Kim Dae-jung.
Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yang Gon visited the South in October 2014, too, to attend the closing ceremony of the 17th Asian Games in Incheon. They did not, however, meet then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The presence of Kim Yong Nam, often described as North Korea’s “nominal” head of state, at Saturday’s meeting represented the highest level meeting between a DPRK official and a South Korean head of state in over a decade.
Kim Yo Jong, too, is the most high-level member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family to visit the South since the Korean War.
One expert said that while the significance of the North Korean delegation’s visit to the South should not be overstated, it did represent a “meaningful and welcome development.”
“[It] offers a unique opportunity to probe North Korea’s intentions with someone who is close to Kim Jong Un,” Mintaro Oba, a former Korea desk officer at the U.S. State Department, told NK News ahead of the meeting.
“North Korea is playing poker here — they’re raising the stakes now by amping up expectations for progress, and planning to cash in later when the reputational cost is greatest for President Moon,” he continued. “We do have to understand what North Korea is doing.”
The meeting comes a day after the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics, which saw athletes from the two Koreas march together under the Korean unification flag for the first time in 11 years.
North Korean hockey player Hwang Chung-gum and South Korean bobsledder Won Yun-jong carried the flag, in a rare symbolic – but controversial – display of inter-Korean unity.
In a speech ahead of the ceremony, Moon Jae-in said the games would be a “precious starting point for a step forward toward world peace.”
While South Korea has been keen to use the Olympics – and renewed inter-Korean dialogue in the weeks that preceded it – to engage with Pyongyang, the U.S. has remained notably less sanguine.
“It’s pretty clear that the White House sees the inter-Korean rapprochement as a bad thing,” former State Department diplomat Oba said.
“But their strategy here is woefully misguided. By publicly undercutting South Korea’s efforts, the United States is advertising disunity in the alliance and setting itself up to take the blame if inter-Korean dialogue ultimately fails.”
U.S. officials, however, have in the past week dropped hints that there may be some openness to talks with the North Koreans.
“I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday in Alaska on a stopover on his way to South Korea and Japan.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday told Fox News that he would also not rule out meeting the North Koreans.
Meanwhile, the South Korean Presidential office on Saturday said Moon Jae-in had rejected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s calls for a resumption of joint ROK-U.S. military drills.
Moon and Abe held a summit on Friday ahead of the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics, but Saturday’s briefing saw the Blue House make an additional comment on the talks.
Abe reportedly told Moon that Pyongyang’s “serious willingness and specific actions on the denuclearization is needed,” saying the period following the Winter Olympics would be a “critical moment.”
“It is important to stage the ROK- U.S. military drills as scheduled,” Abe was quoted as having said by South Korean Presidential Senior Secretary for Public Relations Yoon Young-chan.
Moon then raised his disagreement to Abe’s request, the Blue House said.
“I understand what Prime Minister Abe said is not to postpone the ROK-U.S. military training until there is a progress in North Korea’s denuclearization,” Moon reportedly told Abe.
“But this the issue of our sovereignty and internal affairs… it’s embarrassing that the Prime Minister raises the issue in person.”
Featured image: Presidential archive, KCNA