About the Author
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean government will on Monday send a 10-member special delegation led by national security advisor Chung Eui-yong to Pyongyang, Seoul’s presidential office announced on Sunday.
The delegation, composed of five senior officials and five staff, will make a two-day trip to the DPRK capital.
The five senior officials will include South Korean Chief of National Security Office (NSO) Chung Eui-yong, Director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Suh Hoon, and vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung.
“[They] will engage in dialogue on a peace settlement on the Korean peninsula and the development of the South-North relations with high-level North Korean officials, staying in Pyongyang for one night and two days,” Yoon Young-chan, senior presidential secretary for public relations, told media during a televised briefing.
The special delegation hopes to hold “a comprehensive discussion” with the North Koreans, Yoon added, particularly on the creation of conditions for dialogue between the DPRK and the U.S. and on improving inter-Korean relations.
The delegation will fly to Pyongyang on Monday evening, via a direct route on the western coast.
They will then visit the U.S. to discuss the meeting with American officials, following a debriefing in Seoul on Tuesday.
Both Suh and Chung last month attended two meetings in the South with a high-level North Korean delegation led by Kim Yong Chol and Kim Yong Nam.
Suh is believed to have worked behind the scenes on the first and second inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 and is well-versed in North Korean affairs.
Chung, who serves as the presidential office’s top security advisor, has in recent weeks been communicating with White House officials in charge of security issues, including his U.S. counterpart H.R. McMaster.
Following a meeting with North Korean official Kim Yong Chol last Sunday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the DPRK delegation had expressed an openness to engage in talks with the U.S.
Moon on Thursday evening announced his plan to dispatch a special envoy to North Korea “before long” in response to the visit of DPRK official Kim Yo Jong during the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
A meeting between Kim and the South Korean President following the opening ceremony saw North Korean officials invite Moon to Pyongyang – an invitation Seoul is yet to officially accept or decline.
Moon on Thursday said his special envoy would be tasked with confirming, among other things, North Korea’s willingness to engage in talks with the U.S.
Andrei Lankov, director of the Korea Risk Group and a professor at Kookmin University, said he was skeptical of Seoul’s claims that the dispatch of the special envoys to Pyongyang could facilitate dialogue between North Korea and the U.S.
“This is because there no need for a mediator at all if North Korea has the willingness to hold talks with the U.S.,” Lankov told NK News. “If they wanted to do it, they would have a meeting directly with Washington.”
“The most significant aim for the South and the North is to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and buy time,” he said, adding that the dispatch could instead be seen as an attempt by both Koreas to forestall potential U.S. military action against the North.
The gap between the U.S. and the DPRK on North Korea’s nuclear program means any major breakthrough at the Pyongyang summit is unlikely, Lankov added.
“Therefore, the dispatch of the special envoys had little hope of getting concrete results, but there are chances that it can have a positive impact and reduce tensions,” he said, adding that the talks will, however, “weaken” the position of hardliners in the U.S. government opposed to engagement with the North.
“It is not crucial whether the meeting is successful at this stage, but the existence of the talks between the two Koreas is meaningful itself.”
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, agreed, saying “it won’t be easy to find a satisfactory point of agreement” between the two Koreas.
“Therefore, it is not reasonable to have excessive expectations on the dispatch of the delegation,” Cheong told NK News.
“Even though North Korea reaffirms its stance to engage in dialogue with the U.S… the chances that the North and the U.S. will break down the walls of distrust are slim,” he added.
More likely to succeed, he said, would be trilateral meetings between the two Koreas and the U.S. and four-party talks including China.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK on Saturday released a response to President Donald Trump and other’s claims that dialogue between the countries can only take place with the precondition that North Korea must express interest in denuclearization.
“In the decades-long history of the DPRK-U.S. talks, there had been no case at all where we sat with the U.S. on any precondition, and this will be the case in future, too,” a spokesperson said, in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“The U.S. attitude shown after we clarified our intention for DPRK-U.S. dialogue compels us to only think that the U.S. is not interested in resuming the DPRK-U.S. dialogue.”
Monday’s visit will be first of its kind since August 2007, when then-director of the South Korean spy agency Kim Man-bok visited Pyongyang twice to arrange the second inter-Korean summit.
NIS chief Kim met with the late Kim Yang Gon, who was then serving as director of the United Front Department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
Then-unification minister Chung Dong-young also met the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in June 2005, during a trip intended to persuade Pyongyang to return to the six-party denuclearization talks.
Chung succeeded: the six-party nuclear talks a few months later released a breakthrough joint statement.
President Kim Dae-jung also sent Lim Dong-won — who was then serving as director of the South Korean spy agency and as a special advisor on unification, foreign affairs, and national security — to Pyongyang as a special envoy.
Lim met Kim Jong Il during trips to Pyongyang in May 2000 and April 2002 to arrange the first inter-Korean summit and discuss potential reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
He returned to Pyongyang in January 2003, though he did not meet with the DPRK leader.
Clandestine meetings between high-level DPRK and ROK officials have also taken place: then-culture minister Park Jie-won held a secret meeting in Shanghai with the late vice-chairman Song Ho Gyong of the Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee in March 2000.
Former South Korean Presidents Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, and Roh Tae-woo also reportedly sent spy agency chiefs to Pyongyang.
Edited by Oliver Hotham