PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- North Korea's Kim Jong Un has asked South Korea's president to join him in Pyongyang for talks, a departure for a leader more used to issuing threats than invitations.
After their three hours of meetings and lunch on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader's sister, delivered a written letter and a verbal message from her brother inviting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang at his earliest convenience. In a message in a guest book, she wrote: "I hope Pyongyang and Seoul will become closer in the hearts of Koreans and will bring unification and prosperity in the near future."
Kim Yo Jong said she hopes to see Moon in Pyongyang soon so that he and her brother could "exchange views over many issues," which she said would make "North-South relations develop like yesterday was a long time ago."
"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.
Moon tried to keep both Pyongyang and Washington happy when he received the invitation and 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 an illustration of his efforts to pull in Pyongyang without pushing away Washington, Moon watched short-track speedskating with Vice President Mike 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 avoided talking to the North Korean delegation, even when the two delegations sat just feet apart in the VIP box at the opening ceremony.
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 [Shinzo] 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.
"For all that President Moon has done in outreach and discussions around the Olympics and inter-Korean talks, there is no daylight between the United States and the Republic of Korea and Japan on the need to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until they abandon their nuclear and ballistic-missile program," Pence told reporters Saturday.
Asked later if 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."
Moon is eager to use Kim Yo Jong's presence at the games to restore regular communication with North Korea and eventually pull it into nuclear talks. Many in Seoul, however, while interested in the warming high-level contacts, also are tempering expectations for a real breakthrough.
There's worry, too, that the proposed meeting in Pyongyang may come with preconditions -- a North Korean specialty. A big one could be a demand to cease the U.S.-South Korean war games that North Korea claims are preparation for invasion.
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 not to 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 meeting agenda, "defending the role of exercises for stability and insisting that denuclearization is front and center of any peace talks."
Pence had not been trying to avoid the North Koreans at the Olympic opening ceremony but had been 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 outlets had criticized Pence's decision to attend the opening reception for only five minutes, instead of sitting at the same table as the North Koreans, and not to stand when the joint Korean team entered the stadium on opening night. The left-wing Kyunghyang newspaper called the actions "deeply disrespectful."
North Korea's state media also sharply criticized Pence.
"Pence must know that his frantic acts of abusing the sacred Olympics for confrontational ruckus are as foolish and stupid an act as sweeping the sea with a broom," the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary published Saturday.
But the vice president's team saw it differently. Communications director Jarrod Agen tweeted a laudatory review of Pence's evening: "VP stands and cheers for U.S. athletes. VP hangs out with U.S. athletes instead of dining with Kim regime. VP does not applaud N. Korea or exchange pleasantries w/ the most oppressive regime on earth," he wrote.
There were South Koreans who agreed with Pence's stance. About 800 conservative protesters gathered in central Seoul to tear up photos of Kim Jong Un and condemn Moon for being too soft on North Korea.
Regardless of the different perspectives, Saturday was a remarkable day historically.
Kim Yo Jong, who is thought to be about 30 years old, is the first member of the North's ruling family to visit the South since the Korean War began in 1950.
The catalyst for her visit was the Winter Olympics, which Moon is promoting as the "peace games." A total of about 500 North Koreans, including 22 athletes and 140 musicians, are attending.
In addition to Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean delegation included Choe Hwi; both are under U.S. sanctions over human-rights abuses for their roles in censoring information. Choe is also under international sanctions; South Korea had to seek a special exemption from the United Nations for his travel.
The leader of the delegation was Kim Yong Nam, the 90-year-old who is technically North Korea's head of state and who was by Kim Jong Un's side as he presided over a huge military parade in Pyongyang the day before traveling to South Korea.
They all wore red pins over their hearts showing the first- and second-generation leaders of North Korea: Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather.
Twice, South Korean presidents, both of them progressives, have visited Pyongyang for inter-Korean talks, in 2000 and 2007. But both of those meetings were with Kim Jong Un's father.
The third-generation leader, who took control of the state at the end of 2011, has shown little interest in engaging with the outside world. He has not even been to China, North Korea's traditional ally, as leader and has snubbed recent high-ranking visitors.
Many analysts are skeptical about Kim Jong Un's motivations for this sudden outreach, especially as he continues to assert his desire to press ahead with his nuclear weapons program.
Previous rounds of denuclearization talks, even when they ended in a deal, have quickly collapsed when the Kim regime breached the terms.
The sanctions imposed against the Kim regime after last year's intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear test are now beginning to take effect, experts say, postulating that Kim Jong Un is now looking for the "weakest link" in the chain to try to break the sanctions.
In that regard, Kim Jong Un scored a victory last week. Not only did he get South Korea to breach its own direct sanctions by allowing a North Korean ferry to take musicians to the South for the Olympics, but he also persuaded the United Nations to suspend international sanctions, even if only for three days.
Even if there are more meetings between the rivals after the games, accomplishing something is another matter. South Korea wants a northern neighbor without nukes; North Korea vows to keep its weapons until the United States discards its "hostile" policies against the country.
Hours before Friday's opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, Japan's Abe warned Moon not to fall for North Korea's "smile diplomacy" during the Olympics, according to Moon's office. Pence carried a similar message.
They seem to have gone unheeded.
"Kim Jong Un is clearly serious about reviving talks with the South to improve relations," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University and a security adviser to Moon.
"It seems clear," he said, "that the countries have entered a phase of restoring a regular level of contact."
Information for this article was contributed by Anna Fifield and Ashley Parker of The Washington Post; by Foster Klug and Kim Tong-Hyung of The Associated Press; and by Toluse Olorunnipa of Bloomberg News.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In (left) meets Saturday with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the presidential house in Seoul, South Korea.
A Section on 02/11/2018
Print Headline: N. Korea asks South's Moon to pay a visit