North Korea is sending another high-level delegation to South Korea for the Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony this Sunday, led by a man widely believed to have masterminded the sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors.
Kim Yong Chol, Vice Chairman of the Party Central Committee, will lead the delegation that’s due to arrive by land on the Gyeongui rail line hours before the ceremony starts, according to a statement Thursday from the South’s Ministry of Unification.
Kim is the former chief of the North’s Reconnaissance Bureau, a top military intelligence body blamed by Seoul for a torpedo attack that sunk the South Korean warship Cheonan, in 2010.
The choice of Kim to lead the delegation is likely to be interpreted as an intentional provocation. Kim is named on the list of individuals sanctioned by both the US and South Korea. The US sanctions include provisions intended to restrict movement, though it is not clear whether Kim’s trip to the South is in breach of travel-specific sanctions.
The announcement poses a renewed diplomatic challenge for hosts South Korea, who in addition to navigating issues relating to sanctions, will again need to accommodate both the North Korean and US delegations, without offending either party.
The Opening Ceremony saw US Vice President Mike Pence positioned just a few seats away from members of the North’s high-level delegation, including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The US delegation during Sunday’s Closing Ceremony will be led by Ivanka Trump, the first daughter and senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, raising the prospect of a chance encounter between a member of the Trump family and members of the North’s delegation.
A more formalized meeting between the two sides appears unlikely, however, following comments from the South Korean government ruling out their involvement in such a possibility.
“The Blue House will not facilitate a meeting between Ivanka and North Korea’s high-level delegation,” said a government spokesman, referring to the official name of the executive office of the South Korean president.
When asked whether both Trump and North Korean delegates would be invited to a VIP reception before the Closing Ceremony, the spokesman declined to comment, saying he doesn’t yet know how it will pan out.
Other members of the North’s delegation include Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the country” and six support staff.
Ri was among the delegation sent to South Korea in January for talks which led to North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics.
“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 South Korean statement said.
It added that practical matters, including the delegation’s itinerary, would be discussed through an exchange of documents at Panmunjeom, known as the “truce village,” in the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea.
A total of 104 personnel were aboard the Cheonan when it sunk while conducting a normal mission in the vicinity of Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, in March 2010. Though rescue efforts continued for several days and involved more than 20 vessels, only 58 men were rescued from the ship.
According to an official South Korean report, based on an investigation conducted by South Korean, US, Swedish, British and Australian officials, the ship was attacked by a North Korean torpedo, fired from a small submarine.
North Korea has never claimed responsibility and refuses to accept the findings of the official report.
During his recent trip to South Korea, Vice President Pence visited the Cheonan Memorial which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed in the attack.
Pence toured a museum featuring the sailors’ stories and examined remains of the Korean warship.
Speaking outside the memorial, Pence said the objective of the visit was to show that the US “stand(s) with our allies.”