PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — It seems a brazen choice, even for North Korea. As South Korea’s liberal president seeks to use the Olympics to improve ties, North Korea has chosen to send the alleged mastermind of two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010 to the games’ closing ceremony. So, once again, South Korea’s first Winter Games offers up the possibility of the strangest of optics: That North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, in the same television frame with U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka, who is also set to attend Sunday’s closer.
At the opening ceremony, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sat within feet of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, along with the country’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam. The two sides made no apparent contact despite their proximity. It’s not yet clear what the dynamics will be in the VIP box of Olympic Stadium this time around. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to meet with both sides ahead of the ceremony. But it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. and North Korean envoys will formally meet each other.
Here’s a look at what’s shaping up to be one of the oddest Olympics closest ceremonies in years.
WHO IS THIS GENERAL IN CIVILIAN CLOTHING?
Kim is a vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, and also the head of the North Korean ruling party’s United Front Department, the body responsible for inter-Korean affairs. Like many senior North Korean officials, he is sanctioned by Seoul and Washington over his links to the North’s banned nuclear weapons program. But it is his supposed connection to the bloodiest year in recent memory (and, for the Koreas, that’s saying something) that strikes a nerve in the South.
Kim, who was formerly a top military official, used to head North Korea’s reconnaissance bureau, essentially the country’s anti-Seoul spy operations. It was in this role that Seoul officials have previously said he orchestrated the 2010 attacks. A Seoul-led international panel said North Korea staged a torpedo attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan, a claim the North denies. The sinking, which happened when the South Korean and U.S. militaries were conducting annual springtime military drills, killed 46 sailors. Eight months later, the North bombarded South Korea’s front-line Yeonpyeong island, killing two marines and two civilians. It was the first North Korean attack on a civilian area in South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
IS PYONGYANG TROLLING SEOUL?
Conservatives in both Washington and Seoul are questioning the wisdom of allowing Kim to attend the ceremony. One hypothesis: The North’s decision to send him is a carefully constructed — and insulting — attempt to gauge just how far Moon is willing to go to accommodate the North in his quest to lower hostility between the rivals. Moon has long wanted to engage with the North, but the first year of his presidency has seen a torrid weapons-testing pace by the North and a standoff that had both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump insulting each other and threatening war.
Rep. Jun Hee-kyung, an opposition Liberty Korea Party spokeswoman, issued a statement calling Kim "the main culprit of the Cheonan’s sinking," saying Kim should be "brought to his knees" in front of the victims’ families and dismissing his visit as an "extraordinary humiliation" for South Koreans. South Korea’s Unification Ministry acknowledged it was a difficult decision to make — one that it chose to allow in the end because it hopes to use the Olympic closing ceremony as an opportunity to advance discussions for improving ties.
The ministry on Friday also appeared to walk back previous claims in Seoul that Kim masterminded the attacks personally, though it stands by its conviction the attack on the Cheonan was executed by North Korea when Kim was head of military intelligence.
WALKING A THIN, HARD LINE
The Koreas held top-level summits in 2000 and 2007 during previous liberal South Korean governments that focused on engagement and cooperation with the North, and Moon is likely keen to have a third meeting. His thus far cautious approach to the recent invitation to visit Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang is probably linked to his desire to keep the United States, South Korea’s most important ally and military backer, happy.
That hasn’t been easy with Washington sticking to a decidedly hard line. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert recently suggested Kim Yong Chol should visit a memorial in the South to those slain in 2010. The icy near-miss between the North and the U.S. at the opening ceremony doesn’t bode well for any kind of a thaw at the closer.
But the big test is ahead. Washington and Seoul postponed their usual, jointly run spring war drills because of the games, but they are likely to resume. The North claims these drills are an invasion rehearsal and has linked them to its own weapons tests and drills and an uptick in belligerent rhetoric.
AP writers Hyung-jin Kim, Kim Tong-hyung and Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.