The diplomatic opening created for North and South Korea by the Winter Olympics widened — and perhaps got even more complicated — on Saturday as the totalitarian state’s leader proposed the first inter-Korean summit in a decade.
The invitation came during a lunch meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s emissaries, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon, a progressive who has sought to improve relations with the North, especially ahead of the Games, seemed open to such a meeting after the two countries “fulfill conditions” to arrange it, his office said.
The terms, timing and location of any such meeting were unclear. The potential reaction from Washington, a key South Korean ally on security issues, which has sought to maximize pressure on the North to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, also remained uncertain.
On Saturday, while returning to the U.S. from South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence said “there is no daylight” separating the U.S., the South and Japan on their view of the North and its efforts on nuclear arms and missiles, the Associated Press reported. Pence, while aboard Air Force Two, said he left Asia “encouraged that we will continue to work very closely to continue and intensify the maximum pressure campaign” against the North.
If an inter-Korean summit does take place, it would be the first such gathering since 2007. During the ensuing decade-long gap in communication, the North has advanced as a nuclear state despite efforts by the international community and Seoul to curb its ambitions.
After inviting the North’s officials, including Kim Yo Jong, to the opening ceremony on Friday night, Moon seemed to sense the opportunity. He offered a toast to open the lunch meeting at the Blue House, the presidential complex named for its distinctly colored tile roof.
“The world’s attention is on today’s meeting, and there are high hopes for the North and the South,” said Moon, according to remarks released by his office. “We have a heavy responsibility.”
The invitation comes as Pence visited Seoul in an effort to keep the world — and, perhaps, Moon — focused on the North’s provocative actions in 2017, which included an underground nuclear detonation and the testing of three long-range missiles capable of striking the American mainland.
Members of the North’s delegation sat just behind Pence at the Olympic stadium for the festivities in Pyeongchang, though the vice president didn’t greet them publicly or in private — even as rumors swirled in Seoul about that possibility.
Pence left Seoul for Washington after a two-nation tour of Asia as the news about the summit invitation broke.
Also attending the ceremony with Moon was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who like Pence has encouraged a tougher position on the North.
The North’s involvement in the Games only became possible in the last month after Kim Jong Un delivered a conciliatory message, with themes of Korean solidarity, during a New Year’s Day address. That led Moon to propose talks, and the two sides negotiated terms allowing the entry of a large North Korean delegation — including two dozen athletes but also hundreds of musicians, cheerleaders and taekwondo performers — for the Games.
The invitation could have been predicted immediately after Kim’s address, said Bong Young-shik, a visiting research fellow at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Bong, who doesn’t favor such a meeting, said it’s a sign that the international pressure placed on the North forced it to act with diplomacy. “He clearly stated his intention to go all-out to engage South Korea,” he said of Kim Jong Un. “The economic sanctions are finally beginning to really work. They have hit the North Korea leadership where it hurts.”
Dialogue with the North could be complicated for Moon because of potential objections from Washington and Tokyo, but also from his own citizens.
The North and South have been divided for more than six decades and remain technically at war under an uneasy cease-fire agreement signed in 1953. South Koreans, especially older generations who still remember being separated from relatives, have for years felt an instinctive tug toward unification.
But that sentiment is changing as the population has grown more skeptical of the North’s empty diplomatic overtures — and as younger generations have emerged with fewer cultural ties to the totalitarian state.
That divide is evident in the reaction to the Olympics deal, which included a joint march during the opening ceremony and a combined women’s hockey team, which lost to Switzerland in its first game on Saturday. Protests and online petitions have sprouted in the month since the parties began their negotiations.
Bong, the Yonsei fellow, said any Moon summit might be seen as a prelude to a settlement that includes “peace with nuclear weapons” for the North. A high-level meeting now, he said, would reduce the pressure on the regime to denuclearize.
Any diplomatic discussion of denuclearization — still the official policy of Moon and the South — would probably involve the United States, which has 28,000 troops on the peninsula. It remained unclear how the Trump administration would react to the invitation.
Moon “stressed that an early dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea is essential for improvement in the inter-Korean relationship and asked that the North more actively pursue dialogue with the U.S.,” his spokesman said.
The invitation came as the Games began in earnest Saturday after a night of diplomatic suspense involving the North’s delegation at the opening ceremony. It was part of a flurry of activity off the ice and ski slopes that captured much of the attention.
Kim Yo Jong is a party official thought to be an influential advisor to her brother. Saturday’s meeting was the first high-level visit between the two countries at the presidential complex in nearly a decade.
It was also the first time a member of the Kim dynasty — which began with the nation’s communist patriarch, Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather — has set foot on South Korean soil since the countries divided.
“I hope to see you soon in Pyongyang,” she said.