The delegation is scheduled to arrive in South Korea on Friday afternoon, in time to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Games that night, as part of an Olympics-related charm offensive.
Vice President Pence also will be at the Opening Ceremonies, raising the prospect that he could meet, even fleetingly, the North Korean representatives. “We’ll see what happens,” Pence said before arriving in South Korea.
South Korean officials are understood to be trying to arrange a “brush past” during the festivities in the hope of creating some goodwill between the two avowed enemies. Pence’s delegation and the North Korean officials are expected at a reception Moon will host before the Opening Ceremonies.
For its part, North Korea said Thursday that its representatives had no plans to meet Pence.
“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S., nor in the future, too,” North Korea’s state news agency quoted Jo Yong Sam, a Foreign Ministry official, as saying. “Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea.”
In a surprising twist, North Korea also downplayed the military parade it staged Thursday, having moved the celebrations for the anniversary of its Army Foundation Day from April 25 to Feb. 8, apparently to coincide with the Olympics. Although thousands of soldiers marched through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea did not broadcast the event live and did not allow foreign reporters in to see the parade, as has been the case previously with such events.
Nor did the North appear to unveil any new military hardware, according to edited clips of the parade later released. Previous parades have been used to showcase technology that the regime was perfecting, such as the intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea revealed last year and then later tested. The ICBMs that trundled through central Pyongyang on Thursday appeared to be models of already-known technology, although there were an unprecedented four high-tech Hwasong-15 missiles.
Kim Jong Un presided over Thursday’s relatively low-key parade, with Kim Yong Nam, the 90-year-old president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, at his side and sister Kim Yo Jong working in the background.
“As long as the American imperialists remain on this planet and the threat of American aggression against North Korea continues, the mission of the Korean People’s Army to protect our homeland will never change,” said Kim, who wore a black hat and overcoat as he saluted the soldiers.
Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam will travel Friday to Incheon airport west of Seoul on Kim Jong Un’s private jet, apparently to try to avoid breaching international sanctions, which have blacklisted North Korea’s state airline, Air Koryo.
South Korea is going to great pains to accommodate the North Korean delegation, in contrast to the international community’s efforts to isolate Kim Jong Un’s regime. Moon’s government has asked the United Nations to issue an exemption to allow senior official Choe Hwi, who is under international sanctions, to travel to the South as part of the North’s delegation.
Both Kim Yo Jong and Choe are top officials in the Propaganda and Agitation Department of North Korea’s ruling party and have been blacklisted by the United States for their role in censoring information. But Choe also has been sanctioned through the United Nations.
On Thursday, a U.N. panel granted the waiver allowing Choe to travel to South Korea for the opening of the Olympics, according to a diplomat who was not allowed to speak publicly about committee discussions. There were no objections to Choe joining the North Korean delegation, the diplomat said.
South Korea already has allowed a North Korean ferry to carry in members of the Moranbong Band and Samjiyon Orchestra, which performed Thursday night near one of the Olympic venues. The ferry was allowed despite South Korea’s own sanctions against North Korea.
At the concert, they played a mix of South Korean pop songs from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the folk song “Arirang,” popular in both Koreas, and a few North Korean numbers. The only propaganda stunt in the lineup was the North Korean song “My Country is the Best,” the theme song from a movie directed by Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father. North Korea, however, could have suggested that the South was included in that “country.”
With typical North Korean chutzpah, Pyongyang has asked Seoul for fuel for the ferry to make the journey home. That would constitute a violation of international sanctions, and Seoul has not agreed.
Gleaning North Korea’s intentions is always difficult, but analysts say that Kim Jong Un’s regime appears motivated by two concerns: a possible U.S. missile strike and the impact of sanctions.
For a start, the North Koreans already have managed to get South Korea to bend on sanction implementation, something that is alarming officials in the Trump administration.
“This seems to be a canny and tactical move by North Korea,” said Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea. “All this aura of good feeling is fine, but is it going to translate into anything substantive at the negotiating table? I hope it works, but previous efforts have been two steps forward, three to the side, then one back.”
With officials in the Trump administration repeatedly talking about military options to rein in North Korea and Pence delivering a hard-line statement in Tokyo on Wednesday, there are jitters in South Korea that the United States might push for a strike on the North. That has given Moon’s government a powerful incentive to show progress on the diplomatic front.
But the differences between Washington and Seoul have become glaringly obvious in recent days.
President Trump, in his State of the Union speech, and Pence have sharply criticized North Korea’s human rights record, and Pence plans to meet North Korean defectors while in the South — as Trump did in the Oval Office last week. Pence also announced that the administration is preparing to impose the “toughest” sanctions yet on North Korea.
In stark contrast, Moon’s progressive government is trying to make the most of this opportunity to ease tensions with Pyongyang, and has said it will welcome the delegation and make sure that the North Koreans suffer “no inconvenience” in the South.
“There are big gaps in strategy about how to deal with the North Korean issue,” said J. James Kim, an expert on U.S.-South Korea relations at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “They say they’re coordinating closely with each other, but their movements suggest otherwise.”
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.