North Korea’s Kim Jong Un invites South Korea’s president to Pyongyang
Moon Jae-in must now walk a fine diplomatic line as he tries to encourage North Korea’s new interest in dialogue without straying too far from the “maximum pressure” approach championed by the United States, South Korea’s military ally.
Moon tried to keep both Pyongyang and Washington happy Saturday when he received the invitation, delivered by Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s younger sister and close aide, during a meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Moon responded in a noncommittal way, saying that he wanted to “create the environment for that to be able to happen.” But he also encouraged North Korea to “actively pursue” dialogue with the United States.
In a stark illustration of his efforts to pull in Pyongyang without pushing away Washington, Moon watched short-track speedskating with Vice President Pence at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Saturday night.
Then, after Pence had departed for home, Moon went to the women’s ice hockey match with the North Korean delegation, including Kim Yo Jong. The two Koreas had combined teams and played simply as “Korea,” wearing uniforms emblazoned with blue-and-white flags showing an undivided peninsula.
Pence had arrived in South Korea for the opening of the Olympics with a clear intention to isolate North Korea. He repeatedly called Kim Jong Un’s regime “the most tyrannical” on Earth and studiously avoided talking to or even acknowledging the North Korean delegation, even when they sat just feet apart in the VIP box at the Opening Ceremonies.
Shortly after leaving PyeongChang, Pence told reporters on Air Force Two that he had set out on the trip “to express American resolve regarding North Korea.”
“I was encouraged by the affirmation of our alliance and our common purpose, from both [Japanese] Prime Minister Abe and President Moon,” Pence said. “I leave this trip encouraged that we will continue to work very closely to continue and intensify the maximum-pressure campaign that is underway against the regime in Pyongyang.”
The vice president said that, while they were at the speedskating event, Moon talked about his meeting with the North Koreans earlier in the day.
Pence said he and Moon reiterated to each other “that we will continue to stand strong and work in a coordinated way to bring maximum economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on North Korea.”
Asked later whether Moon’s desire to accept the North Korean invitation to visit Pyongyang undermined Pence’s trip or detracted from his message, a senior administration official said: “No, I don’t think it does in the least.”
But Kim Jong Un seems determined to divide the allies.
South Korea and the United States had agreed to postpone their annual spring military exercises until after the Olympics, partly to encourage North Korea to participate — and to not act as a spoiler.
North Korea is calling for the exercises, which involve rehearsing attacks on the regime, to be canceled outright.
“Sending his sister with an invite for Moon to Pyongyang is well played by Kim Jong Un,” said James Schoff, a Korea expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It will be hard for the allies to resume their military exercises during summit planning.”
For that reason, Schoff said, Washington should work closely with Seoul to shape any North-South summit agenda, “defending the role of exercises for stability and insisting that denuclearization is front and center of any peace talks.”
Pence wasn’t trying to avoid the North Koreans at the Olympic ceremony, but he was trying to ignore them, the senior administration official said, adding that the North Koreans weren’t the reason Pence was there.
Some South Korean media criticized Pence’s decisions to attend the event for only five minutes, instead of sitting at the same table as the North Koreans, and to not stand when the joint Korean team entered the stadium. The left-wing Kyunghyang newspaper called the actions “deeply disrespectful.”
North Korea’s state media also sharply criticized Pence.