North Korea’s Olympic “charm offensive” came to an end on Thursday as officials announced Pyongyang’s delegation to the closing ceremony would include Kim Yong-chol, who is currently vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Committee but formerly chief of the North Korean military intelligence agency blamed for the 2010 torpedo attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan.
The Cheonan incident was one of the worst episodes in North-South relations since the Korean War, so bringing the man responsible to the Olympics makes quite a statement. The South Korean corvette was cruising near disputed waters when a North Korean submarine attacked it with a torpedo, sinking the ship and killing 46 South Korean sailors.
The South Korean military expressed confidence that the murder weapon was a North Korean torpedo and demanded a full investigation, but North Korea denied responsibility and refused to apologize, instead demanding that South Korea lift sanctions imposed in retaliation for the attack.
International experts agreed that a deliberate torpedo attack was a more likely explanation for the destruction of the Cheonan than the alternative theory of an accidental collision with a mine left over from the Korean War. The vast majority of the South Korean public believed North Korea was responsible. The attack was condemned by the United Nations and several member nations, including the United States.
The current South Korean government was diplomatic about the decision to send Kim Yong-chol to the Winter Olympics, essentially saying that suspicions about his role linger but his involvement in the Cheonan attack could not be proven beyond dispute, and his current position makes him an appropriate guest for the ceremony. This also required Seoul to look the other way over Kim having been blacklisted by both South Korea and the United States for his involvement in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“Kim is in charge of South Korea affairs, which is why we’re accepting him as we believe it would help improve inter-Korean relations and resolve the matter of denuclearization,” South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon explained to a session of parliament, as quoted by Reuters.
Reuters also cited speculation that Kim’s visit might be sending a message to South Korea or an attempt to rehabilitate his image south of the border. It could also be an effort to create a little tension between South Korea and the United States, which might be less than enthusiastic about approving his visit. Kim was designated for sanctions by the U.S. government in 2010 due to his involvement in arms sales. The New York Times reported on Thursday that South Korean officials are talking to Washington to clear the way for Kim’s visit.
The Times lists a few more important points from Kim’s resume as North Korean spymaster:
Kim Yong-chol is a familiar figure to South Korean negotiators. In 2014, Mr. Kim, who is also a military 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 Mr. Kim’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance, the North’s main spy agency, South Korean officials said. The spies told South Korean authorities that Mr. Kim personally assigned them to the assassination mission, throwing them a dinner party before they left for the South.
South Korea opposition leaders were strongly opposed to Kim’s attendance at the Olympics.
“The main culprit of the Cheonan’s sinking can never set foot on the land of the Republic of Korea,” Liberty Korea Party leader Jun Hee-kyung said in a statement.
Jun said it was “shameless” for Pyongyang to send Kim to the closing ceremony and described his attendance as a “rare humiliation” for South Korea, unless he was coming to “kneel before our people” and humbly apologize for his deeds, which seems unlikely.
Kim’s visit to South Korea is scheduled to last for three days and is expected to include a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.