North Korea will send its nominal head of state to South Korea later this week to attend the Winter Olympic Games, which have provided a rare opportunity for the two Koreas to set aside long-running hostilities.
Since a thaw emerged in inter-Korean relations on New Year’s Day, athletes have exchanged visits to train jointly and diplomats have met to work out the details of North Korea’s participation in the Games, due to begin in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang on February 9.
But Pyongyang will now be sending Kim Yong-nam, the leader of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North Korean parliament, to attend the Games, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Sunday.
Kim will become the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the South since the Korean War ended in 1953, and his attendance will mark the zenith of the rapprochement that has emerged in the relations.
He will be leading a delegation of 22 officials on a three-day trip due to begin on Friday.
The two Koreas have long had strained ties. Tensions skyrocketed last year with repeated North Korean missile and nuclear tests and increased South Korean joint military action with the United States.
But the two neighbors launched rare talks in early January this year to bring North Koreans to the Pyeongchang Games after their leader Kim Jong-un expressed his willingness to open dialog with Seoul during his New Year’s speech.
Kim Yong-nam is not the subject of travel bans by the United Nations or the United States, both of which have imposed sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programs.
He attended the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
In 2014, Pyongyang sent Choe Ryong-hae — a close aide to Kim Jong-un — to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Choe was subjected to a unilateral ban by South Korea later in 2016.
The South Korean Unification Ministry said on Monday that a North Korean art troupe will also likely travel by ship to perform during the Olympics under an exemption from bilateral sanctions.
Sanctions imposed in May 2010 ban all North Korean ships from docking at South Korean ports in response to a North Korean torpedo attack on a navy ship that killed 46 sailors.
The ministry said the North had proposed that the orchestra use the Mangyongbong 92, a ferry that chiefly operates between North Korea and Russia, for transportation and lodging. It said sanctions exemptions were also being sought.