North Korea will send ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam to the Winter Olympics this week, raising the prospect of direct talks between the hermit state and America.
Kim Yong Nam, leader of the country’s parliament, will attend the Olympics in Pyeongchang from February 9 until the 11.
South Korean officials are hoping to hold talks with Nam, the highest-ranking official to visit since 2014, with the goal of working toward peace on the Korean peninsula.
US Vice President Mike Pence will also be attending the games, raising the possibility of direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Kim Yong Nam, leader of North Korea’s parliament, will attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics this week along with a high-level delegation
Kim, 90, will be the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the South since 2014, and it is hoped he will attend peace talks with President Moon Jae-in
Trump has repeatedly said he would be open to the idea of talks with North Korea, and said there is no reason he couldn’t have a good relationship with leader Kim Jong Un, but has stopped short of making an approach.
North Korea has often reacted angrily to suggestions of good relations with America.
On Sunday night, the North sent a message via a cross-border communication channel saying its high-level delegation will visit South Korea from February 9-11, the South’s Unification Ministry stated.
It said the North’s delegation includes Mr Kim and three other officials but gave no further details.
The will be Mr Kim’s first visit to South Korea, though he often travels abroad and attended the opening ceremonies of both the 2008 Summer Olympics and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Mr Kim chairs the top decision-making body of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, and his official title as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly made him the North’s nominal or ceremonial leader.
Mr Kim, 90, has been frequently seen on state TV making propaganda-filled speeches on key state anniversaries or receiving visiting foreign dignitaries on behalf of leader Kim Jong Un and his late dictator father Kim Jong Il.
Some experts say Kim Yong Nam’s actual influence in state affairs has been diminished gradually over the years largely due to his age.
Kim has held his position as ceremonial leader of the North since 1998, when the country was run by Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il
North Korean ice hockey players will be competing with their South Korean counterparts at the games under a unification flag (pictured)
The North dispatching a high-level delegation was part of agreements the two Koreas struck last month over Olympic cooperation.
Under the deals, the North is sending 22 athletes to the Pyeongchang games, who will parade together with South Korean players under a single flag during the February 9 opening ceremony.
Twelve of the North Korean athletes have formed the Koreas’ first Olympic team in women’s hockey, and the North is also to send a 230-member cheering group and a 140-person art troupe.
The Koreas’ reconciliation mood follows a year of heightened tensions over North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programmes.
Some experts say the North may want to use its Olympic-related overture as a way to weaken US-led international pressure and sanctions.
Who is Kim Yong Nam? Head of North Korea’s parliament who has served under all three dictators
Kim Yong Nam, 90, is one of the most powerful men in North Korea
Kim Yong Nam was born in Pyongyang in 1928 and attended university before becoming a teacher at the Central Party School, then moved into politics.
Kim began his career while the country was under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, known as the founder of the modern nation.
He rose through the ranks under Sung and was named the Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1983.
Sung passed away in 1994, and four years later his son, Kim Jong Il, elevated Kim to the position he currently holds, which is President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea.
It is Kim’s role to receive visiting heads of state, attend events overseas on behalf of the Kim regime, and sign treaties, roles usually assumed by the Head of State in other nations.
As such he is often called the ceremonial leader of North Korea, and in theory power is shared between himself, Premier Pak Pong Ju, and Kim Jong Un – though in reality all power rests with the ruling family.
Author Don Oberdorfer described Kim in his book as being ‘enigmatic, rigid in his official role, personally pleasant, and highly intelligent.’