North Korea and South Korea athletes wave as they arrive during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. File picture: Michael Sohn/AP

Seoul, South Korea — North Korea said Thursday that a high-ranking official, who many in the South believe orchestrated a deadly attack in 2010, would lead a delegation to Sunday’s Winter Olympics closing ceremony in the South, another sign the two Koreas are trying to work out a road map toward improving ties.

The North’s delegation will be led by Kim Yong Chol, a vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee. The eight-member delegation Sunday will start a three-day trip that will include attending the closing ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korean officials said.

Kim’s trip follows another recent visit to the South by senior North Korean officials. This month, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, attended the games’ opening ceremony and met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. In that meeting she invited Moon to a summit meeting in the North on behalf of her brother.

Also scheduled to attend Sunday’s closing ceremony is President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who will lead the U.S. delegation. U.S. officials said she had no plans to meet anyone representing the North.

Vice President Mike Pence had planned to sit down with Kim Yo Jong while attending the opening ceremony, but the North Koreans backed out at the last minute, according to U.S. officials. South Korea had tried to arrange the meeting.

The North Koreans’ presence at the closing ceremony raises the possibility of a chance encounter between the North’s delegation and Ivanka Trump. Pence and Kim sat just feet apart in a VIP box at the opening ceremony but they did not acknowledge each other, their frosty attitudes symbolic of the hostile relations between their countries.

Kim Yong Chol, a former head of the North’s main intelligence agency, now leads a Workers’ Party department in charge of relations with South Korea. He was widely believed to have helped engineer the sinking of a South Korean ship in 2010, killing 46 sailors. He had been banned from visiting the South for his alleged involvement in the North’s military provocations and nuclear weapons development.
Still, the South Korean government said Thursday that it would allow Kim to lead the delegation across the border.

“We expect the high-level delegation’s participation in the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to help advance the process of settling peace on the Korean Peninsula including the improvement of inter-Korean relations and denuclearization,” the Unification Ministry, a South Korean government agency, said in a statement. “Against this backdrop, from this standpoint, we will accept the visit of North Korea’s high-level delegation to the South.”

Although he is a longtime advocate for dialogue, Moon has not yet decided whether he would meet with Kim Jong Un. He said he would meet the North Korean leader only if he was assured that their meeting could produce progress in helping end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

Kim Yong Chol, who will lead Sunday’s delegation, is expected to meet with Moon to discuss the details of a potential summit meeting.

Until now, North Korea has refused to discuss its pursuit of nuclear weapons with the South, insisting that it was an issue between Pyongyang and the United States.

Moon is also eager to persuade the United State and North Korea to talk to each other to defuse tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. So far, neither the United States nor North Korea has expressed much interest in dialogue.

Kim Yong Chol is a familiar figure to South Korean negotiators. In 2014, Kim, who is also a general, led a delegation to discuss ending hostilities after North and South Korean soldiers exchanged fire across the border.

In 2010, when two North Korean agents were caught in the South while on a mission to assassinate a high-ranking defector from the North, they said they were dispatched by Kim’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance, the North’s main spy agency, South Korean officials said. The spies told South Korean authorities that Kim personally assigned them to the mission, throwing them a dinner party before they left for the South.

New York Times