Monday, 05 March 2018 09:27
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Chung Eui-yong (center), head of the presidential National Security Office, Suh Hoon (second left), the chief of the South's National Intelligence Service, and others pose before boarding an aircraft as they leave for Pyongyang at a military airport on Monday Chung Eui-yong (center), head of the presidential National Security Office, Suh Hoon (second left), the chief of the South's National Intelligence Service, and others pose before boarding an aircraft as they leave for Pyongyang at a military airport on Monday

(CNN) A high-ranking South Korean delegation arrived in North Korea Monday, where it will raise the possibility of talks between Pyongyang and Washington.


South Korean National Security Chief Chung Eui-yong, who is leading the group, said he intends to "have an in-depth discussion on measures to continue various talks between North Korea and the international community, including the United States."

"Above all, I will communicate clearly the will and intention of the president, who wants the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and create a lasting peace by utilizing the flow of the inter-Korean dialogue, and improvement of the relationship that was built during the Pyeongchang Olympic Games," Chung said.

Chung and the rest of the group touched down in Pyongyang Monday afternoon, according to North Korea state news agency KCNA.

Korea watchers believe South Korean President Moon Jae-in is trying to build on the diplomatic thaw brought about by North Korea's attendance at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last month. The two Koreas are now negotiating the details of North Korea's participation in the Paralympic Winter Games later this month.

For the Moon administration, the Olympic detente has been an opportunity to try to prevent a rerun of 2017, when a string of North Korean weapons tests and hostile rhetoric from US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim pushed tensions on the Korean Peninsula higher and higher.

"There's a clear determination on Moon's part not to lose momentum after the Olympics," said Euan Graham, the director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

Moon, who was elected last year after his conservative predecessor was ousted in a corruption scandal, has been proponent of dialogue and engagement with North Korea since his days as a presidential aide in the 2000s.

Now he has the difficult job of playing interlocutor between a North Korean regime steadfastly clinging to its nuclear weapons program -- which it sees as the only way to ensure the survival of its regime -- and an administration in Washington that believes Pyongyang's development of a long-range ballistic missile potentially capable of hitting the US homeland with a nuclear warhead constitutes an unacceptable risk.

"What Moon is trying to do is interpose himself between North Korea and the United States so that there is a kind of defusing role that the South Koreans play, naively or not, in trying to at least sort of forestall any ramping up of tensions," Graham said.

Another trip north?
Though Chung is officially leading the delegation, the attendance of Suh Hoon, South Korea's spy chief, could signal that the two sides are laying the groundwork for Moon to eventually meet with North Korean leader Kim in person.

Moon was invited north last month by Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, who also serves as the head of the country's propaganda department. She was in South Korea last month to attend the Winter Games opening ceremony.

Suh was tapped by Moon to serve as the director of South Korea's National Intelligence Service last year. His appointment fueled speculation about a new inter-Korean summit, as Suh helped organize the two inter-Korean summits in the 2000s that saw two consecutive South Korean presidents travel north to meet with Kim Jong Il.

Sending Suh to Pyongyang "suggests they're already taking about summit preparations," said Graham.

The delegation will spend Monday night in Pyongyang, return to Seoul Tuesday and then travel to the United States to brief their American counterparts.

Also attending are:
  • The vice minister of the South Korean Unification Ministry, Chun Hae-sung, a key figure in the January Olympic negotiations.
  • Suh's deputy, Kim Sang-gyun.
  • Yung Gyeong-young, one of President Moon's top aides.

What happens next
Many analysts worry about what happens to the diplomatic thaw once the Olympic activities finish.

South Korea and the United States are scheduled to hold annual military drills after the Paralympics, South Korean Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo confirmed Monday.

Those drills, which North Korea views as hostile, were delayed in order to ensure the Games went smoothly.

The United States maintains that it's open to sitting down with Pyongyang, but the North Koreans need to give some sort of signal that they'll negotiate in good faith and must agree to eventual denuclearization.

But critics contend the Trump administration hasn't offered a clear, coherent message on diplomacy with the Kim regime.

In a speech at the exclusive Gridiron Club Saturday night -- an annual event in which the President and other top political leaders get together to give joke-laden, self-deprecating speeches -- Trump touched upon the North Korea issue.

"They called up a couple of days ago and said, 'We would like to talk,'" Trump said. "And I said, 'So would we, but you have to de-nuke. You have to de-nuke.' So let's see what happens. Let's see what happens."

North Korea's Foreign Ministry, for its part, accused the United States this weekend of refusing to recognize realities on the ground and putting forward unrealistic roadblocks to dialogue.

"It is the consistent and principled position of the DPRK,a to resolve issues in a diplomatic and peaceful way through dialogue and negotiation," KCNA quoted the ministry as saying.

"The dialogue we desire is the one designed to discuss and resolve the issues of mutual concern on an equal footing between states ... the US attitude shown after we clarified our intention for DPRK-US dialogue compels us to only think that the US is not interested in resuming the DPRK-US dialogue."

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