GANGNEUNG, South Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister headed home Sunday night after a whirlwind three days in South Korea, where she sat among world dignitaries at the Olympics and tossed a diplomatic offer to the South aimed at ending seven decades of hostility.
Kim Yo Jong and the rest of the North Korean delegation departed for Pyongyang on her brother’s private jet, a day after they delivered his hopes for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a lunch at Seoul’s presidential palace. It was a sharp, but possibly fleeting, contrast with many months of rising tensions connected to the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
They capped their final day in South Korea by joining Moon at a Seoul concert given by a visiting North Korean art troupe led by the head of the immensely popular Moranbong band, whose young female members are hand-picked by Kim Jong Un.
Accepting North Korea’s demand to transport more than 100 members of the art troupe by sea, South Korea treated the Mangyongbong-92 ferry as an exemption to the maritime sanctions it imposed on the North, a controversial move amid concerns that the North is trying to use the Olympics to poke holes in international sanctions.
South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon hosted the North Koreans for lunch Sunday before Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, hosted them for dinner ahead of the concert.
Kim Yo Jong, 30, is an increasingly prominent figure in her brother’s government and the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North Korean delegation also included the country’s 90-year-old head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
In dispatching the highest level of government officials the North has ever sent to the South, Kim Jong Un revealed a sense of urgency to break out of deep diplomatic isolation in the face of toughening sanctions over his nuclear program, analysts say.
“Honestly, I didn’t know I would come here so suddenly. I thought things would be strange and very different, but I found a lot of things being similar,” Kim said while proposing a toast at Sunday’s dinner, according to Moon’s office. “Here’s to hoping that we could see the pleasant people [of the South] again in Pyeongchang and bring closer the future where we are one again.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Sunday rejected any suggestion that even a temporary warming of relations between the North and South could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
It’s too early to say, Mattis said, “if using the Olympics in a way to reduce tension – if that’s going to have any traction once the Olympics are over. We can’t say right now.”
The North Koreans went through a busy schedule in South Korea as the world watched their every move. They were whisked back and forth between Seoul and the Olympic towns of Pyeongchang and Gangneung.
They shared the VIP box with world leaders at the opening ceremony and joined Moon in cheering for the first-ever inter-Korean Olympic team as it debuted in the women’s ice hockey tournament. Saturday’s game ended in a crushing 8-0 loss to Switzerland.
The most important part of the visit, however, came during one of the quieter moments.
Invited by Moon for lunch at Seoul’s presidential palace, Kim Yo Jong verbally delivered her brother’s hope for a summit with Moon in Pyongyang, a meeting that she said would help significantly improve ties after an extended period of animosity.
“We hope that President [Moon] could leave a legacy that would last over generations by leading the way in opening a new era of unification,” she said, according to Moon’s office.
Though Moon has used the Olympics to resurrect meaningful communication with North Korea after a diplomatic stalemate over its nuclear program, he didn’t immediately jump on the North Korean offer for a summit.
He said the Koreas should create an environment so that a summit could take place. He also called for the need of a quick resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
After arriving in Seoul on Friday, the North Koreans attended a chilly opening ceremony at Pyeongchang’s Olympic Stadium, taking their place among world dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seemed to go out of their way to not acknowledge the North Koreans despite sitting just few feet (meters) away.
Analysts say Kim Jong Un’s decision to send his sister to the South reflected an eagerness to break out of diplomatic isolation by improving ties with the South, which the country could eventually use as a bridge to approach the United States. The U.S.-led international community has been tightening the screws on North Korea with sanctions designed to punish its economy and rein in its efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and missile program, which now includes developmental long-range missiles targeting the U.S. mainland.
By also sending a youthful, photogenic individual who would surely draw international attention at the Olympics, Kim might have also been trying to construct a fresher image of the country, particularly in face of U.S. efforts to use the Olympics as an occasion to highlight the North’s brutal human rights record.
Always flanked by thick groups of bodyguards, Kim Yo Jong commanded attention wherever she went, walking among throngs of journalists with a quiet poise and occasionally shooting an enigmatic smile at cameras.
The Koreas previously held summits in 2000 and 2007, both hosted in Pyongyang by Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s late father. The previous meetings came after rounds of international talks aimed at eliminating the North’s nuclear program, which eventually failed.
Moon has always expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea. Reviving inter-Korean dialogue is critical for the policies of Moon, who insists that Seoul should be in control in international efforts to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue.
“The fate of our nation must be determined by our own selves – we must not allow the repeat of unfortunate past history where our fate was determined with no regard to our opinions,” Moon said in a speech to South Korean lawmakers in November.
But analysts say it may be more difficult for the South to arrange a summit with the North coming off a year in which Pyongyang test-fired dozens of missiles, including three ICBMs, and conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date.
South Korea may also need to persuade traditional allies the United States and Japan, which have raised concerns that the North is attempting to use its outreach as a release valve for international pressure.
Kim Tong-hyung covers the Koreas for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @KimTongHyung.
This story has been corrected to show that the North Korean delegation stayed at the Walkerhill, not Wakerhill, hotel.