The Korea Herald


Former NK spymaster's visit sparks public outrage

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Feb. 23, 2018 - 15:54

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A North Korean ranking military official’s planned visit to the PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea is fueling concerns and outrage here and the South Korean government is struggling to calm the waves. 

North Korea`s general reconnaissance bureau head Kim Yong-chol will be part of the closing delegation at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Yonhap) North Korea`s general reconnaissance bureau head Kim Yong-chol will be part of the closing delegation at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)

Gen. Kim Yong-chol, head of the North Korean ruling party’s United Front Department and former chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, is a known hard-liner blacklisted by both South Korea and the US for his alleged involvement in the North’s nuclear weapons program and provocations.

He is also accused of masterminding the 2010 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, along with the bombardment the same year of Yeonpyeongdo, an island near the West Sea maritime border, in which four people died.

“Because the North said the purpose of the group’s visit is to attend the Olympics’ closing ceremony and the government believes that its trip will help improve inter-Korean ties and pave way for dialogue for peace, Seoul has decided to accept Kim’s trip,” Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman for Seoul’s Unification Ministry, said Friday.

A day earlier, the ministry delivered North Korea’s announcement that it would send Kim on Sunday as head of an eight-member delegation assembled for the closing ceremony of PyeongChang Olympics. He is likely to meet President Moon Jae-in during his three-day visit here.

The ministry added it was difficult to “exactly pinpoint” who is responsible for the 2010 Cheonan incident, although North Korea was clearly behind the attack and Kim at the time was leading the reconnaissance bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency which the South blamed as key player.

“The government seeks to focus on who could lead practical dialogue to improve inter-Korean relations and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, rather than to concentrate on who did what in the past,” it said in a statement.

A South Korean spy agency official echoed the ministry’s statement, claiming that “although it’s possible to speculate,” it is unclear whether Gen. Kim commanded the attack on Cheonan, according to Kang Seok-ho of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

The official also called the North Korean general “the right person” with whom the South and allies could discuss key issues including denuclearization, military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and inter-Korean ties, Kang, who had attended an intelligence briefing at the National Assembly, told the press.

While Seoul is asking for public understanding, the South Korean public and opposition party are expected to continue to protest the government’s decision.

Earlier in the day, some 70 members of the Liberty Korea Party staged a demonstration in front of Cheong Wa Dae demanding the government withdraw its decision.

“President Moon’s decision to accept the North’s facade of peace is a serious issue and it will go down in history as a crime eternal,” said the party in a statement.

The bereaved family members of sailors killed in the Cheonan incident have said they will hold a press conference against the visit Saturday, a day before the delegation’s scheduled arrival.

In line with the South Korean public’s deteriorating sentiment, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert advised that Kim should visit the memorial in the South built for the victims of the torpedo attack.

US Vice President Mike Pence met with four North Korean defectors at the memorial earlier this month, when he led the US Olympic delegation to South Korea.

Meanwhile, analysts are saying North Korea’s decision to tap Kim as head of the delegation is designed to “strongly” convey its wish for the “Olympic peace momentum” to continue.

“North Korea’s move to dispatch Kim, who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs as head of the United Front Department, shows Pyongyang’s willingness to improve inter-Korean ties,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said.

“But it’s also a way of saying that it will not avoid the US when it makes a gesture to talk through Ivanka Trump,” he added.

Kim’s trip will coincide with a visit by President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka, who was slated to arrive in South Korea on Friday to attend a dinner with Moon and the Olympic closing ceremony.

The Washington Post recently reported a meeting between Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong was arranged by the Moon administration, but failed to take place after the North Koreans backed out at the last minute.

By Jung Min-kyung (