Can Kim Yo-jong be game changer in NK-US talks?

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Feb 8, 2018 - 18:27
  • Updated : Feb 8, 2018 - 18:54
As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister comes to South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympics, questions are growing over whether her visit could be a game changer for talks between North Korea and the US.

North Korea said Wednesday it would send Kim Yo-jong, first vice director of Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, as a member of the high-level delegation to South Korea for a three-day visit starting Friday. She is the first member of the North’s “Kim Dynasty” to visit the South. 

Kim Yo-jong (Yonhap)

Kim Jong-un’s pick of his sister, who is an increasingly influential figure in the country’s leadership, is seen as a potential sign of his willingness to break out from diplomatic isolation by mending ties with South Korea and the US, experts say.

But Kim’s visit would not likely heighten the possibility of meaningful engagement between North Korea and the US on the sidelines of the Feb. 9-25 Olympics, they add.

“I don‘t think Kim’s visit can be a game changer and I don‘t think North Korea and the US will hold talks on the sidelines of the Olympics as the two countries’ positions (on how to resolve the nuclear issue) have not changed,” Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University, told The Korea Herald.

While US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not rule out a possible spontaneous meeting with North Korean officials, saying, “We‘ll see what happens,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert only said that “there are no plans to meet with any North Korean officials during or after the Olympics.”

Cho Han-bum, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said that the North’s rare peace overture is its way of seeking an “exit plan” in the face of tough sanctions.

“I think that engagement between North Korea and the US is possible, but it will not be about denuclearization,” he said. “The North is basically demanding the US accept its possession of nuclear weapons, meet with it and have talks to discuss peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, also said that while Pyongyang and Washington are not likely to meet with each other, it could “help lay the groundwork for possible North Korea-US talks beyond the PyeongChang Olympics.”

On the surface, both Pyongyang and Washington made clear that they are not interested in meeting each other.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the US and it will be the same in the future,” a director of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency. “We are not going to use such a sports festival as the Winter Olympics as a political lever. There is no need to do so.”

Making his way to PyeongChang to lead the US delegation to Friday’s opening ceremonies, US Vice President Mike Pence said that the US is preparing to announce the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions against North Korea and reiterated calls for more pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.

“We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region,” Pence said during a stop in Japan on Wednesday.

The US has said that it maintains its “maximum pressure” campaign against the North through sanctions and it will not engage in dialogue with Pyongyang unless the isolated country renounces its nuclear and missile programs.

“Officials from the two countries could encounter each other at events, but there will not be such progress as the countries agreeing to hold talks,” said research fellow Woo Jung-yeop at Sejong Institute, noting the firm difference in their approach to the North’s nuclear ambitions.

North Korea maintains it will not engage in any dialogue with the US if talks would be about abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.

“Kim’s visit is more about showing that improvement of inter-Korean ties is possible without the North giving up its nuclear weapons programs,” Woo said. “It is a strategy to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US.”

South Korea has sought to use the momentum created by inter-Korean talks to lead North Korea and the US to dialogue.

“The improvement in inter-Korean relations goes hand in hand with denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said during his meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday. “Our task lies in how we develop the conciliatory mood between the two Koreas into North Korea-US dialogue beyond the Olympics.”