Wednesday’s move will no doubt anger proponents of a “maximum pressure” approach toward the North Korean regime — an approach led by the Trump administration — as well as South Korean taxpayers, who already were highly skeptical of the inter-Korean outreach.
Although the amount is relatively small, it shows how North Korea operates, said Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea.
“The North constantly couples its diplomacy with demands for aid, especially cash, as though the international community has to pay for the privilege of engaging,” Kelly said. “It’s symptomatic of the gangster or shakedown mentality of the North Korean elite, both toward its own people, the South and all its other negotiating partners.”
Anticipating criticism, South Korea’s progressive government is insisting that the decision does not breach international sanctions, which prohibit the transfer of money and fuel to North Korea.
Instead, the opening created by the Olympics could serve as a springboard to a broader detente, said Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea’s unification minister.
“This could further pave the way for inter-Korean talks to build and sustain peace on the peninsula,” Cho said.
“With the dispatch of a high-level delegation, an art troupe and a cheering squad, the Olympics have become a chance for the North to communicate with the international community,” he said, according to local reports.
A total of 424 North Koreans traveled to the South for Olympic-related events. This included 229 members of an all-female cheering squad, sometimes called the “army of beauties,” which has been singing songs such as “Glad to Meet You” on the sidelines of sporting events. Separately, a 140-member orchestra played two concerts in the South.
There are also 22 North Korean athletes participating in the Games, with the most famous, figure skaters Kim Ju Sik and Ryom Tae Ok, competing Wednesday. The International Olympic Committee is bankrolling the participation of all the North Korean athletes.
The Unification Ministry’s exchange and cooperation promotion council on Wednesday approved allocating $2.64 million to pay the bills for the other North Koreans who attended the Olympic celebrations.
This includes just over $1 million for accommodation and food for the North Koreans who have attended the Olympics, including the cost of putting the 140-member Samjiyon Orchestra in the five-star Sheraton Grand Walkerhill hotel in Seoul.
It also included just under $1 million for entrance fees to the Games, which will continue until Feb. 25.
The council set aside $100,000 for transportation costs, although it did not specify which expenses would be covered.
The South Korean government will decide later whether to fund North Korea’s participation in the Paralympics, a Unification Ministry spokesman said. About 150 North Koreans are expected for those Games, which will take place immediately after the Olympics.
The $2.6 million amount does not include the costs for the delegation of four senior officials — including leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, and titular head of state Kim Yong Nam — who flew separately to South Korea.
They traveled by high-speed train to the opening ceremony on the western side of the peninsula, before returning to Seoul late that night, where they stayed at the Walkerhill hotel, which is popular among celebrities because it is in an isolated spot.
After meetings in the presidential Blue House on Saturday, they returned to the Olympic venues to watch the combined Korean women’s hockey team play, before returning to Seoul.
A Blue House spokesman declined to say how the delegation traveled back and forth between Seoul and PyeongChang.
The Unification Ministry did not respond to an inquiry about how much the government had spent on hosting the officials, who included one person blacklisted by the United Nations. South Korea had to get a special exemption from the U.N. sanctions committee to allow Choe Hwi, a senior official in North Korea’s propaganda and agitation department.
Both Choe and Kim Yo Jong, who also holds a senior position in the propaganda apparatus, have been directly sanctioned by the U.S. government, accused of human rights violations because they are involved in censorship activities.
The agreement to cover the North’s costs underscores the extent to which South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s government hopes to use this opening to generate some goodwill with North Korea and parlay that into a broader diplomatic opening.
At their meeting in Seoul on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong delivered an invitation from her brother for Moon to visit Pyongyang.
Moon, a progressive who favors engagement with the North, was calibrated in his response, saying he wanted to “create the right conditions” for such a visit, but also encouraging the Kim regime to speak directly with the Trump administration.
On his return from the Olympics opening ceremony, Vice President Pence told The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin that the administration was open to talking with North Korea, saying it could do “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”
The North Korean leader also seems to consider the Olympic-related rapprochement a success.
After hearing from the North Korean delegation upon their return to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un said it was “very impressive” that the South had “specially prioritized” the North Koreans during their visit.
“It is important to continue making good results by further livening up the warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue created by the strong desire and common will of the north and the south with the Winter Olympics as a momentum,” Kim said, according to a report Tuesday by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.