By Agence France-Presse
A controversial North Korean general and the daughter of US President Donald Trump attended the Winter Olympics closing ceremony Sunday, in the final piece of the Games-led diplomacy that has dominated headlines from Pyeongchang.
Brief footage of the VIP enclosure at the arena showed South Korean President Moon Jae-in shaking hands first with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and then with North Korean General Kim Yong Chol — who reportedly expressed Pyongyang’s willingness to hold talks with Washington.
A senior US administration official said there was no interaction between Ivanka, who was placed next to Moon’s wife, and Kim, who was in the row behind her, just two seats away from General Vincent Brooks, the commander of US forces in South Korea.
Kim led an eight-member delegation that crossed the Demilitarized Zone into the South early Sunday. His visit has sparked angry protests from conservatives as he is accused of masterminding past deadly attacks on the South.
The nuclear-armed North has gone on a charm offensive over the Games, sending athletes, cheerleaders and performers. Leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong attended the opening ceremony.
Moon met for an hour with Kim ahead of the closing ceremony, according to Seoul.
The North — which defiantly tested multiple missiles last year, including some believed capable of reaching the US mainland — has long expressed its desire to talk to Washington without preconditions.
But the US says it must first take concrete steps toward disarming.
“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” the White House said in a statement Sunday.
“In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”
Kim Yo Jong had no interaction with US Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony Feb. 9, though they were just a few seats apart. According to the US, a planned meeting between the delegations from Washington and Pyongyang the following day was canceled at short notice by the North Koreans.
Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Friday, with Donald Trump describing them as the heaviest ever.
Pyongyang denounced them on Sunday just as Moon was meeting Kim Yong Chol.
Analysts say the North’s overtures to the South are intended to loosen sanctions imposed over its banned nuclear and missile programs, and to weaken the alliance between Seoul and Washington.
But Moon did not immediately accept an invitation passed on by Kim Yo Jong from her brother to a summit in Pyongyang, saying the right conditions must be created.
And the athletes from North and South Korea carried their own national flags at Sunday’s closing ceremony, rather than the unification emblem they used at the opening ceremony.
The US Treasury on Friday blacklisted 28 ships, 27 companies and one person, imposing an asset freeze and barring US citizens from dealing with them, in what Trump described as the “heaviest sanctions ever” against Pyongyang.
Trump warned that if the latest sanctions do not work, the US may “go to phase two,” which he did not define but said “may be a very rough thing.”
A spokesman for Pyongyang’s foreign ministry responded Sunday, telling the official KCNA news agency that “we will consider any type of blockade an act of war.”
The UN Security Council has already banned North Korean exports of coal — a key foreign exchange earner — iron ore, seafood and textiles, and restricted its oil imports.
Washington is now seeking a UN ban on vessels and shippers worldwide that help the North circumvent sanctions.
Kim Yong Chol himself is blacklisted under Seoul’s unilateral sanctions against the North, which subject him to an assets freeze. He is widely blamed for attacks including the torpedoing of Seoul’s Cheonan warship in 2010 with the loss of 46 lives, for which Pyongyang has denied responsibility.
Conservative lawmakers staged an overnight protest near the border with the North, joined by hundreds of other activists, forcing Kim’s motorcade to take an alternate route.
They waved banners including “Arrest Kim Yong Chol!” and “Kim Yong Chol should kneel in front of the victims’ families and apologize!”
Officials from both Seoul and Washington had already said there would be no meeting between Kim Yong Chol and Ivanka Trump — who traveled with administration Korea specialists and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
Kim Yo Jong’s trip at the start of the Games — the first visit to the South by a member of the North’s ruling dynasty since 1953 — made global headlines.
But Pence told a Washington audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that she was “a central pillar of the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet.”
Pyongyang denounced his comments Sunday. A statement carried by KCNA said that Trump should know the North would “never have face-to-face talks… even after 100 years or 200 years” with those who had been “viciously slandering the dignity of our supreme leadership.”