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Experts question whether Yo-jong will meet Pence

Feb 09,2018
Washington has not openly objected to Kim Yo-jong, a member of the North Korean dynasty, attending the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but experts are divided as to whether it suggests a possibility of high-level dialogue between North Korean and U.S. officials.

Pyongyang’s announcement Wednesday that it will send to the Olympics opening ceremony North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is the first vice director of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, garnered immediate global attention.

On the same day, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced in Tokyo after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Washington will roll out the “toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.”

He emphasized a hardline stance to “continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Wednesday backed Pence’s statement and posted on Twitter that the Treasury will “unveil one of the toughest sanctions tranches ever against N. Korea.” He called on all countries to fully implement UN Security Council resolutions, expel North Korean financial facilitators and trade representatives and join its maximum pressure campaign.

But Pence has not shut off the possibility of talks with North Koreans.

The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported on the prospect of Kim Yo-jong meeting with Pence, noting that U.S. officials have said any meeting involving Pence would have to be with “an appropriately high-ranking North Korean.”

A White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday, regarding Kim’s visit to South Korea, that Washington and Seoul are “in close cooperation” over North Korea’s participation in the Olympics and that senior government officials have continued to consult each other on this, but did not respond on whether Pence may meet with Kim.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Jan. 11, 2017, added Kim Yo-jong to its blacklist, sanctioning her for her role in human rights abuses and censorship activities in the regime.

Key members of the NSC have been emphasizing a diplomatic resolution concerning North Korea in recent days, diverging from reports of a “bloody nose” limited military strike that was raised the previous week.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in a briefing at the White House on Wednesday emphasized, “As far as the situation with Korea, it is firmly in the diplomatic lane.”

Asked whether he supports any sort of meeting between Pence and North Korean officials at the Olympics, which kick off Friday, Mattis replied, “Vice President Pence is quite capable of making the call on that there, while he’s in Korea.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, when questioned on whether the United States or South Korea has anything to gain from rapprochement with North Korea, told Fox News Tuesday, “Our understanding is that what North Korea is receiving from the South Koreans is no more than what all the participants who are attending the Olympics are receiving.”

Tillerson further noted that South Korean athletes have trained facilities in the North, adding, “this is on a reciprocal basis and there is no gain, there is no cash or anything being paid to the North Koreans for their participation in the Olympics. So it’s very much just on an equal basis.”

Tillerson went on to comment on the delay in the annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, saying, “We agreed very early on that we did not want to detract from South Korea’s needs to ensure they could provide full security during the conduct of the Olympics.”

Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, told reporters Thursday, “While it is difficult to predict the possibility of contact between high-level U.S. and North Korean figures, we look forward to visits by high-level officials of both sides to be a trigger to open the door to dialogue to resolve the North’s nuclear issue.”

He said that the South Korean government is “holding close consultations with the United States keeping in mind our position that there should be no problems in relation to the U.S. unilateral sanctions.”

North Korea, however, said it has “no intention” of meeting with U.S. officials, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Thursday, quoting Cho Yong-sam, director general of the North American department at its Foreign Ministry.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday his full support for South Korea in hosting the Olympics, writing, “Congratulations to the Republic of Korea on what will be a MAGNIFICENT Winter Olympics! What the South Korean people have built is truly an inspiration!”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]