TOKYO — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosted a South Korean presidential delegation for dinner in Pyongyang on Monday, the latest surprising development in the thaw between the estranged neighbors aided by the Winter Olympics.
This is the first time the 34-year-old North Korean leader is known to have met with any South Korean officials. He has not met any heads of state — including the presidents of historical allies like China and Russia — since he took over the totalitarian state after his father’s death in late 2011.
“Chairman Kim Jong Un is currently hosting a dinner for the special envoys,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House, told reporters in Seoul.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a 10-member delegation to Pyongyang to begin preparations for an inter-Korean summit, the first in 10 years. Kim Jong Un last month invited Moon to visit Pyongyang, with the invitation hand-delivered by his sister, Kim Yo Jong, when she visited South Korea last month for the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The South’s delegation is led by Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security adviser and someone who talks regularly to his American counterpart, H.R. McMaster. It also includes Suh Hoon, chief of the South’s National Intelligence Service.
“I plan to hold in-depth discussions on various ways to continue talks between not only the South and the North, but also the North and the United States and the international community,” Chung told reporters before departing Seoul Monday afternoon.
Chung will travel to Washington after returning from Pyongyang to brief Trump administration officials on the meeting. He was specifically chosen to lead the delegation because he would be viewed in Washington as a credible and trustworthy messenger, according to people in close touch with the Blue House.
Some other officials in Moon’s inner circle, notably his chief of staff, are viewed with suspicion in Washington because of previous activities considered sympathetic to North Korea and hostile to the United States.
Some analysts were surprised that Kim had agreed to meet the delegation.
“This shows how desperate he is,” said Choi Jin-wook, who was head of the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification until last year. “His plan to become a nuclear state has almost become successful, but so what? He can’t eat nukes. So now he’s knocking on South Korea’s door.”
Since being elected South Korea’s president last May, Moon has repeatedly proffered olive branches to Kim. But he was repeatedly rebuffed, with the North Korean leader preferring to press ahead with his missile and nuclear testing program.
But the international sanctions imposed are now approaching an economic blockade, and experts say they are beginning to hurt North Korea.
That is considered the motivating factor behind Kim’s sudden announcement on Jan. 1 that he was open to talks with South Korea and that he would send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, held just 50 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone that has separated the two Koreas since the end of World War II.
China said it was “a good thing” that the South Korean delegation had traveled to Pyongyang and “we look forward to a positive outcome of the meeting,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“We hope all sides will bear in mind the larger picture of peninsular peace and stability … and make joint efforts not only for better ties between the North and South but for the early accomplishment of denuclearization and lasting peace and stability on the peninsula,” Geng said, according to the Associated Press.
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