PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — North Korea’s head of state is coming to archrival South Korea, but it’s the wrong one — at least if the goal is peace on the volatile Korean Peninsula.
Kim Yong Nam is, technically, the North’s titular leader, and the visit by the 90-year-old North Korean fixture to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will mark — again, technically — the highest-level trip south from the North in recent memory.
But the visit, like Kim’s title, may be entirely ceremonial.
The real power in North Korea is third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, and any serious bid for high-level talks at the games would likely involve someone from the inner circle that surrounds the man who took supreme power after the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
That is not to say that Kim Yong Nam’s visit will be useless.
After one of the worst years in a long, acrimonious and bloody relationship — North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches and increasingly believable threats of war from both North Korea and Washington — any nod to diplomacy is progress, and even ceremonial heads of state will help.
Kim Yong Nam and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will both be at the games’ Feb. 9 opening ceremony. With the Trump administration touting a purported harder line against the North than the Obama administration — and Donald Trump himself trading insults with Kim Jong Un — there’s little chance that Washington, which doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with the North, will approve a meeting.
For other officials in Pyeongchang, however, Kim Yong Nam, whose head of state title stems from his role as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s unicameral legislature, may be more palatable as a diplomatic liaison. That’s because he’s one of the few high-level North Koreans not on global blacklists over the North’s illicit nuclear and missile programs.
There’s also a possibility that Kim Yong Nam could be carrying a message for the South Koreans from his boss, or traveling south with someone close to Kim Jong Un, which would improve chances of actual diplomacy happening. Outside analysts will be pouring over the delegation list to see who’s with him. One interesting possibility that’s being talked about in Seoul is Choe Ryong Hae, who is seen as Kim Jong Un’s top lieutenant.
Kim Yong Nam alone, however, is unlikely to oversee any lasting breakthrough.
Well known outside North Korea among Korea specialists, he has chaired the top decision-making body of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament since 1998. His voice alone is almost as well known in the South as his face: A deep, resonant rumble that often rings out during the North’s huge, stage-managed public propaganda events. The Olympics are also something of a specialty: He visited the Beijing Games in 2008 and the Sochi Games in 2014.
He is often the ultimate stop for foreign dignitaries visiting Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, sometimes disappointingly so: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had traveled in 2010 to Pyongyang hoping to meet with then leader Kim Jong Il, was forced to make do with Kim Yong Nam.
While his influence in state affairs has likely been diminishing over the years because of his age, Kim Yong Nam is a proven survivor, having dodged the purges and executions that have felled other senior North Korean bureaucrats.
Regardless of whom Pyongyang sends, it’s not really clear how interested North Korea is in diplomacy.
The North is set to stage a huge military parade the day before the opening ceremonies, so there will be plenty of images of martial firepower lingering when Kim Yong Nam arrives.
Skeptics, of whom there are many after years of failed diplomacy on the peninsula, are sure the North is trying to use its Olympic-related overtures to weaken U.S.-led international pressure and sanctions.
Once the games end, they say, the missile tests will resume.
There’s also some bitterness in Seoul at the huge amount of attention paid at the Olympics to the 22 North Korean athletes who’ll attend and march together with South Korean athletes under a single flag during the opening ceremony. It was the South, after all, that put in the time, money and work to win the bid and build the games.
Still, the liberal government in Seoul is so far saying all the right things. South Korea’s presidential office said Monday that it "will extend warm hospitality" to Kim Yong Nam and "prepare various opportunities for communication, including high-level inter-Korean dialogue."
If there is diplomacy, it won’t be the first time the two Koreas have used sporting events as a backdrop.
At the close of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, three top North Korean officials, including the person then seen as No. 2, made a surprise visit and held the highest-level face-to-face talks with South Korea in five years.
Not much came of those talks, as is often the case in recent years when the Koreas meet, but there’s a renewed eagerness in the South, after a year of hostility, threats and frightening weapons tests, to explore diplomacy.
Even if it’s largely ceremonial.
Foster Klug is AP’s bureau chief in Seoul and has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/apklug