South Korea’s Olympic outreach achieved a diplomatic breakthrough Saturday when President Moon Jae-in was invited to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
A letter from Kim, articulating his willingness to improve inter-Korea relations, was delivered by his sister Kim Yo Jong to Moon, during a lunch for the North Korean Olympic delegation at South Korea's Presidential Blue House.
According to presidential spokesman Kim Eui-Kyeom, Kim Jong Un's sister verbally added an invitation for Moon to meet with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang at the earliest possible date.
"In reply, President Moon expressed his will to make it happen by creating the conditions in the future," spokesman Kim Eui-Kyeom said.
The invitation sets up the possibility for the first summit in 10 years between the leaders of North and South Korea. Kim Jong Un has not met with any major world leaders since he came to power in December of 2011.
It is also a validating accomplishment for President Moon, who has been advocating for increased dialogue and engagement with North Korea to reduce the potential for conflict in the region, since he was elected in May 2017.
After more than of year of accelerated North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests, Moon helped bring about a pause in provocations by negotiating North Korea’s participation in the Olympics. He also gained U.S. support for postponing joint military exercises until after the Olympics and Paralympics end in late March.
The invitation for an inter-Korean leaders summit followed an emotional night at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, when both South and North Korean delegations marched together under a unified Korea flag for the first time in a decade.
At the opening ceremony, Moon shook hands with the North Korean delegation members and they all cheered athletes from both countries.
The display of Korean unity at the Olympics opening drew widespread applause from the audience, including from Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee.
“To see it finally happen, it really did not only give me goosebumps, but I think the whole public and I guess the entire world,” Bach said.
The inter-Korean Olympic cooperation includes a joint women’s ice hockey team that competed Saturday in the games. North Korea’s Olympic delegation also includes artists and musicians who will perform during the games at venues in the Pyeongchang region and in Seoul.
One person who did not stand and applaud the joint Korean squad at the opening ceremony was U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
During his visit to South Korea, where he led the American Olympic delegation, Pence has criticized North Korea’s Olympic cooperation as a propaganda campaign to improve its image and weaken international support for sanctions.
When asked for a reaction to North Korea's invitation to Moon, Pence's spokesperson said, “The vice president is grateful that President Moon reaffirmed his strong commitment to the global maximum pressure campaign and for his support for continued sanctions.”
While Pence was noncommittal about the possibly of meeting with the North Koreans at the Olympics, the delegation from Pyongyang indicated that it was not willing to hold any talks with the Americans.
Pence tried to highlight the dangerous and repressive nature of the leadership in Pyongyang by visiting a memorial to a South Korean ship that was apparently attacked by North Korea in 2010, although Pyongyang denies this allegation.
He also invited the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died last year after being imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months, to join the Olympic delegation.
Pence has said the U.S. will impose further sanctions to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program that includes the ongoing development of a long-range nuclear missiles that can target the U.S. mainland. He also emphasized that the U.S. remains prepared to strike North Korea with military force if provoked, and there is reportedly planning underway in the Pentagon to give U.S. President Donald Trump various military options.
KCNA, North Korea’s official state media, called Pence’s refusal to applaud the joint Korean team at the Olympics an “ugly sight” and warned the U.S. leader to “stop behaving imprudently” in opposition to improving inter-Korean ties.
Moon has tried to balance support for the U.S. “maximum pressure” approach by openly opposing any pre-emptive military action on the Korean Peninsula, and trying to draw concessions from both Pyongyang and Washington to facilitate denuclearization talks.
Possible concessions would include a U.S. agreement to further delay military drills, and for North Korea to hold off further weapons tests and agree to pursue denuclearization talks.
President Moon reportedly objected to a call on Saturday from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to quickly resume South Korea's joint military drills with the United States after the Olympics, saying it was a violation of his country's sovereignty, according to a Blue House official.
VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report from Gangneung, South Korea.