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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Kim entrusts elder statesman to lead Winter Olympics delegation

Local media said visiting Mike Pence has asked Seoul to ensure he doesn’t encounter North Korean officials

According to media reports the Democratic People's Republic of Korea released a statement confirming that Kim Yong Nam, pictured, will head a high-level delegation attending the opening ceremony of the winter Olympic Games. Miguel Gutierrez / EPA
According to media reports the Democratic People's Republic of Korea released a statement confirming that Kim Yong Nam, pictured, will head a high-level delegation attending the opening ceremony of the winter Olympic Games. Miguel Gutierrez / EPA

Kim Jong-un's pick to lead North Korea’s delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea is both symbolic and politically safe.

Mr Kim has turned to an elder statesman in picking Kim Yong Nam, the isolated regime’s ceremonial head of state. South Korea’s presidential Blue House said on Monday that he was the highest-ranking Pyongyang official to ever travel south of the heavily fortified border, but the 90-year-old is seen has having little actual power.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is considering holding a one-on-one meeting with Kim Yong Nam, the Yonhap News Agency said, citing unidentified officials from the president’s office. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said that visiting US vice president Mike Pence has asked Seoul to ensure that he does not encounter North Korean officials at Friday’s opening ceremony, underscoring the tensions during the most politically charged Olympics in years.

South Korean media and analysts had speculated the delegation might be led by either Choe Ryong Hae, Mr Kim’s No. 2 official; or the leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Unlike Mr Choe, Kim Yong Nam is not subject to South Korean sanctions. Picking his younger sibling would’ve been symbolic but politically provocative, because she would have been the first Kim family member to visit South Korea.

“Kim Yong Nam’s presence is a good sign,” said Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied in Pyongyang. “Technically, he is the most senior statesman, unlike Choe Ryong Hae, whose current position in the hierarchy is uncertain, in spite of his significant political clout.”

Mr Lankov said that the politician’s presence indicated that North Korea wanted to show it was serious about cooperation. “North Koreans are increasingly careful. They are afraid that the US will start shooting and hope to diffuse the tensions,” he said.

Kim Yong Nam has sometimes represented North Korea overseas in recent years, visiting Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Singapore and Vietnam.

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