North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited South Korea’s president to a summit in Pyongyang, officials said Saturday, his latest move in a flurry of diplomacy that saw athletes from both countries march together under a unified flag in the Olympics opening ceremony the day before.
President Moon Jae-in responded by calling on the North to “create the environment for that to be able to happen,” and to resume dialogue with the United States. Washington, which has struck a hard line against the North’s nuclear weapon program, had no immediate reaction to the overture.
It would be the first summit between the two countries, which are divided by one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders, in more than a decade.
The invitation came as the two Koreas are enjoying a rare moment of unity after the North agreed to participate in the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games and sent 22 athletes and a high-level delegation that included his powerful sister to the South.
Critics believe North Korea is trying to use the international stage to gain sympathy and ease punishing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure over its nuclear weapons program.
The letter was delivered by the North Korean leader’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who is acting as a special envoy during a lunch meeting with Moon in Seoul, spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told reporters.
Photos showed the smiling South Korean president shaking hands with the 28-year-old head of the ruling party’s powerful propaganda and agitation department before they sat down at a table along with North Korea’s 90-year-old ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam. She placed a blue document folder in front of her, which South Korean media speculated contained the letter.
She then verbally stated that her brother would like to meet Moon “in the near future and would like to ask President Moon to visit North Korea at his earliest convenience,” the spokesman said, according to a transcript provided by the Blue House.
Moon responded by expressing his intention “to create the environment for that to be able to happen.” He also stressed the need for the communist state to more actively try to engage with the United States.
“Early resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea is absolutely necessary for developments in inter-Korean relations as well,” he was quoted as saying.
Moon and President Donald Trump have previously said they’d be willing to meet with the North Korean leader under the right conditions. But the Trump administration insists any negotiations must include the international community’s demands that the North abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The United States also has stepped up pressure by stressing human rights allegations against the North Korean regime.
U.S. HARD LINE
Vice President Mike Pence, who was seated just a few feet away from the North Korean delegation during the opening ceremony, has struck a hard line during his trip to the Olympics.
“The U.S. will not allow the propaganda charade by the North Korean regime to go unchallenged on the world stage. The world can NOT turn a blind eye to the oppression & threats of the Kim regime,” he tweeted earlier Saturday.
North Korea’s decision to participate has eased tensions after months of saber rattling and missile and nuclear tests that have raised fears it’s closer-than-expected to achieving its goal of developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. mainland.
The growing threat was underscored on the eve of the Olympics with a North Korean military parade that put missiles and other weapons on display in Pyongyang.
Trump has called Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” and promised to unleash “fire and fury” and “totally destroy” North Korea if needed to defend the United States and its allies.
The U.S. president welcomed the Olympics détente and Washington agreed to suspend annual war games with the South until after the games and the subsequent Paralympics. But the administration insisted that Washington will continue its policy of maximum pressure against the North and that military action remain a possibility.
The North Korean leader in turn has called Trump a “dotard” and threatened to fire missiles into the waters near the Pacific Island of Guam last year.
Kim announced his nuclear program, which the communist state claims is needed for self-defense, was complete even as he extended an olive branch to the South in his New Year’s address, which set the Olympics participation in motion.
Moon, meanwhile, has expressed hope the Olympics détente could lead to a broader dialogue with the United States.
Duyeon Kim, a senior visiting fellow with the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum, said it’s possible to pursue engagement with the North while maintaining the maximum pressure campaign but noted Moon will need to sell the idea to Washington.
North Korea has a track record of dangling peace to wrangle concessions and aid from the West only to renege on its promises.
“Both tracks doable but tight ally coordination key,” she wrote on Twitter.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are based in the South.
The last summit was in 2007 when then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun traveled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father.
South Korea’s former leader Kim Dae-jung, who won a Nobel Prize for what was dubbed a “sunshine policy” with the North, held the first summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000 in Pyongyang.
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