SEOUL - North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive has worked to improve its image among many South Koreans, while the U.S. indicates new openness to dialogue.
On Monday South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation visit opened the door to further cooperation that could help ease recent tensions over Pyongyang’s threatening posture and numerous nuclear and missile tests in the last two years.
"It shows that North Korea is willing to improve the relationship between South and North Korea. We also believe it showed that they might take unprecedented drastic action if needed," said Unification Ministry Spokesman, Baik Tae-Hyun.
The Unification spokesman did not clarify what he meant by “unprecedented drastic action” but Seoul has stated that the goal of its engagement efforts is to set up denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
Neither side had been willing to make any concessions to facilitate dialogue. Pyongyang has been unwilling to discuss giving up its nuclear deterrent that it claims is needed to prevent a U.S. led invasion. While Washington had demanded the Kim Jong Un government give up its nuclear ambitions as a pre-condition to talks.
However, on Sunday Vice President Mike Pence, who led the American Olympic delegation in South Korea, reportedly said that he discussed with President Moon possible terms for engagement with North Korea, and that Washington may be open to unconditional talks with Pyongyang. But he emphasized the U.S. would continue to increase sanctions, and hold in reserve the credible threat of military force, to pressure North Korea until it agrees to give up its nuclear program.
On Sunday the 140 member Samjiyon Orchestra performed at the National Theater of Korea in Seoul as part of North Korea’s outreach, that included joint North and South delegations marching together under a unified Korean flag at the Olympics opening ceremony, and fielding a unified women’s Olympic hockey team.
Among those attending were Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the country's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung Sook were also on hand and sat next to the high-level North Korean representatives.
At the end of Sunday’s concert the North Korean orchestra was joined by Seohyun, a singer with the South Korean pop group Girls' Generation, to perform together a Korean song entitled "Our Wish Is Unification."
The concert in Seoul was attended by 1,500 South Koreans. Over 150,000 people had requested tickets for the two North Korean performances in Seoul on Sunday and in the Olympic city of Gangneung, on the day before the opening ceremony. Most of the tickets were distributed by a lottery system.
Many who attended Sunday’s event viewed the North’s Olympic participation expressed optimism that it could lead to further cooperation.
"I view this very positively, and I think this will become a great help for inter-Korean relations in the future," said Yoon Jong-hyun, who attended the concert in Seoul.
In contrast many proponents for inter-Korean engagement viewed the U.S. vice president’s behavior at the Olympics as antagonistic to President Moon’s engagement efforts, by refusing to applaud the joint Korean delegation at the opening ceremony, and ignoring the North Korean leaders standing nearby.
"It is very sad, very disappointing. If the United States really wants true peace for the two Koreas, it should rather encourage and welcome it, and say that it wants to improve inter-Korean relations more peacefully," said Park Jae-dong, who also attended the Samjiyon orchestra performance in Seoul.
The Korea Times newspaper in Seoul also ran an editorial on Monday criticizing Vice President Pence saying, "it is not only undiplomatic but also un-American" to refuse to interact with the North Korean Olympic delegation during an Olympic ceremony highlighting peace and reconciliation.
However over a thousand pro-American demonstrators waving American flags also came out in Seoul on Sunday to support Vice President Pence’s warning that North Korea’s Olympic cooperation is merely a propaganda campaign to weaken international sanctions.
"Kim Jong Un has offered his hand to South Korea as a disguised action in order to earn time for missiles," said pro American protester Kim Hyun-ju.
The liberal President Moon’s engagement polices, these conservative protesters say, will aid the North and weaken the U.S. alliance with South Korea.
"Dialogue is a means to help North Korea under the disguise of peace. What Moon Jae-in is doing is totally cooperating with Kim Jong Un and trying to alienate South Korea from the U.S.," said protester Kim Hong-seon.
During a meeting with Moon on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong delivered an invitation from Kim Jong Un for the South Korean president to visit Pyongyang. Moon responded in kind, saying that he would work to create the appropriate conditions for an inter-Korean leaders summit to happen.
To help pave the way for a possible summit, South Korea on Monday announced it would try to arrange more reunions for families divided by the Korean War and indicated it will soon send $8 million in humanitarian aid, through the World Food Program and the United Nations Children’s Fund, to provide food and medicine to help children and pregnant women in need.
Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.