SEOUL — Ivanka Trump arrived in South Korea on Friday night to attend the closing of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, with the progressive government in Seoul pulling out all the stops to fete “Assistant Ivanka” — and by extension her father, as well.
But the growing divide between Seoul and Washington over how to deal with North Korea was apparent even amid the niceties of pre-dinner remarks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in talked about engagement, while Ivanka Trump reiterated the need for “maximum pressure.”
And with a high-level North Korean delegation arriving in the South on Sunday to attend the closing of the Games, the ceremony will present another diplomatic minefield for the South Korean hosts as they try to push forward with a North Korean thaw without antagonizing their U.S. allies.
Both the White House and South Korea’s presidential Blue House will be particularly eager to avoid a repeat of the Opening Ceremonies, when Vice President Pence assiduously avoided acknowledging the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even though she was seated almost directly behind him.
The South Korean press dubbed Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea” because of her powerful family connections and ability to turn on the charm.
But with Trump now in South Korea, the Blue House said that there were no plans for a meeting or even an encounter between the U.S. and North Korean delegations while they overlap in PyeongChang.
While welcoming Trump to Seoul, Moon said that her father’s active support and attention has been a “very important factor” in the success of the Olympics — which Moon has touted as the “Peace Games.”
“North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympic Games has served as an opportunity for us to engage in active discussions between the two Koreas, and this has led to lowering of tensions on the peninsula and an improvement in inter-Korean relations,” Moon said in remarks before dinner in a traditional Korean house on the presidential compound.
“I also believe that such developments are thanks to President Trump’s strong support for inter-Korean dialogue, and I would like to express my deep appreciation on this point, as well,” he said.
When the North Korean delegation arrived in Seoul before the Opening Ceremonies, Kim Yo Jong brought a letter from her brother inviting Moon to a summit in Pyongyang.
Moon, who campaigned last year on a pledge to go to North Korea to try to break the standoff, said he wanted to work toward creating the “right conditions” for a summit.
Unusually, Moon has not spoken to President Trump since the inter-Korean meetings were held around the Opening Ceremonies. However, Trump did speak by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the latter, who has a frosty relationship with Moon, attended the ceremonies. Their call lasted 76 minutes.
Ivanka Trump clearly came armed with the administration’s message on North Korea.
While saying that she was in South Korea “to reaffirm our bonds of friendship and partnership,” Trump also said she wanted to “reaffirm our commitment to our maximum-pressure campaign to ensure that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized.”
The Trump administration has continued to insist that sanctions and other forms of punishment — possibly extending to military strikes — are necessary to persuade Kim Jong Un’s regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Analysts say that Kim appears to be trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, forcing Moon’s progressive government to decide whether to pursue closer inter-Korean relations or maintain its security alliance with the United States.
That balancing act becomes even more difficult with the arrival Sunday of the next North Korean delegation. The delegates will stay for three days, during which time they will discuss North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Paralympics.
But the delegation will be led by Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief who is widely considered the mastermind behind a 2010 torpedo attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean naval corvette, which killed 46 sailors, and the shelling of a South Korean island that killed four people.
He has been blacklisted by the United States and South Korea for his activities in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Still, the South Korean government has said it would allow him to travel and that it would explain the situation to the United States. And anyway, said Baik Tae-hyun, the spokesman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, it remains uncertain whether Kim Yong Chol was behind the attacks.
“It is clear that North Korea was blamed for the South Korean warship’s sinking, and Kim was leading North Korea’s reconnaissance bureau at that time,” Baik told reporters in Seoul, referring to Kim Yong Chol. “But it is also the fact that there is a limitation in pinpointing who was responsible for the incident.”
South Korean conservatives, however, are outraged that he is being allowed to visit the South.
“We absolutely oppose a visit to the South by Kim Yong Chol, the main culprit of the Cheonan’s sinking,” Rep. Kim Sung-tae, a leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said during a rally, according to the Yonhap News Agency. “His visit should be immediately scrapped.”
That outrage appears likely to grow, especially if South Korea picks up the tab for the upcoming North Korean visit.
Moon’s government spent $223,000 hosting Kim Jong Un’s sister and the other senior North Korean officials during their three-day visit. Half was spent on accommodation, and meals and transportation cost about $50,000 each, the Unification Ministry said.
But for now, South Korea is focusing on Ivanka Trump — simply “Ivanka” here, or “Assistant Ivanka” by the Blue House — and on trying to placate Washington.
At Friday’s dinner, Trump was served a “delicately prepared” kosher menu featuring “Korean food designed to be palatable for foreigners.”
This included lotus root and pear salad, grilled soft tofu for Trump and kalbi beef ribs for everyone else, and bibimbap, “a food that mixes different ingredients evenly and symbolizes harmony,” the Blue House said.
Also attending the dinner were White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho); Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea; Marc Knapper, the interim U.S. charge d’affaires in Seoul for the past 13 months; and Allison Hooker, Korea director on the National Security Council.
South Korean media drew comparisons between Kim Jong Un’s decision to send his sister to the opening and President Trump’s to send his daughter to the closing.
Local commentators have urged Moon to use Ivanka Trump’s visit to improve relations with Washington — just as Kim Yo Jong’s visit paved the way for talks with the North Korean regime.
“Trump’s treatment in South Korea carries great significance as it could affect our relations with the United States as well as North Korea,” the JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers, said in an editorial Friday.
“Even if she does not carry messages from her father, her remarks can give a clue to grasping what the Trump administration really thinks. If our government helps her understand South Korea’s situation on the peninsula, it could help improve Seoul-Washington ties,” the paper wrote.
Kim Yo Jong, who is the propaganda chief in North Korea, was an object of mystery and fascination for many South Koreans, given how little is known about the leadership in Pyongyang. Speculation only grew after her departure, amid reports that she is pregnant.