North Korea to send head of state to Seoul for first time in years

Kim Yong-nam, the head of the North’s parliament, is the highest-level North Korean official to visit South Korea since 2014.

North Korea will send its nominal head of state and other senior officials to South Korea this week, as the neighbours push through with attempts at rapprochement ahead of this month’s Winter Olympics.

Kim Yong-nam, the head of the North’s parliament, will be the highest-level North Korean official to visit South Korea since the North sent then-No. 2 Hwang Pyong So at the close of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Kim’s trip touched off immediate media speculation that direct contacts between Pyongyang and Washington may be possible during the Olympics, with the US sending vice president Mike Pence to the games that start on 9 February.

On Sunday night, the North sent a message via a cross-border communication channel saying its high-level delegation will visit South Korea from 9 to 11 February, the South’s unification ministry said in a statement. It said the North’s delegation includes Kim and three other officials but gave no further details like its itinerary.

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 as the North’s nominal or ceremonial leader. Kim, 90, has been frequently seen on state TV making propaganda-filled speeches with deep, booming voices 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.

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 9 February 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 programs. Some experts say the North may want to use its Olympic-related overture as a way to weaken US-led international pressure and sanctions.