North Korean leader Kim Jong Unhosted a high-level political delegation from the South for dinner on Monday evening in Pyongyang, his first known meeting with officials from the rival government in Seoul.
The encounter, announced by the South Korean president’s office, could signal a new phase of rapprochement as the two Koreas seek to expand a diplomatic thaw that started ahead of the Winter Olympics and saw North Koreans travel to the Games and talk with counterparts from the South.
South Korea has said that it sent its envoys to the North to try to spur talks between Pyongyang and Washington on the North’s atomic-weapons program, as well as to foster better inter-Korean ties. Seoul has said its delegation would head to the U.S. after returning from Pyongyang.
Deeper engagement between Seoul and Pyongyang without demonstrable progress on resolving the nuclear standoff could raise tensions between South Korea, which is eager to push diplomacy, and a U.S. administration that is determined to pressure and isolate the North into giving up its weapons.
Monday’s dinner, which was disclosed in an evening briefing in Seoul by a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House, hadn’t been announced before the trip. The spokesman offered no details of what was discussed at the meal.
North Korea acknowledged the arrival of the South Korean delegation Monday but made no mention of a meeting with Mr. Kim.
The North Korean leader is not known to have met any foreign heads of state since he succeeded his father in late 2011, though he has met with visiting ministers from friendly countries.
The gathering Monday in Pyongyang, which included South Korea’s intelligence chief and the president’s top national security adviser, was the second meeting this year between a member of the North’s founding family and senior figures from the South.
Last month, Mr. Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong made a last-minute visit to Seoul and the ski resort of Pyeongchang to attend the Olympic Opening Ceremony. During the trip, Ms. Kim extended an invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-into visit Pyongyang for a summit.
Mr. Moon hasn’t said yes. He sent the high-level delegation now in Pyongyang to explore the possibility of a meeting. The two Koreas have staged two summit meetings between their leaders—in 2000 and 2007. Each time, Kim Jong Un’s father hosted the South Korean president in Pyongyang.
On Monday, the South Korean delegation arrived at Pyongyang’s main international airport in the mid-afternoon after a special direct flight from the South, according to the Blue House spokesman.
Ri Son Gwon, a senior North Korean official who helps oversee relations with the South and was one of the key interlocutors during last month’s visit to Seoul, greeted the delegation at the airport, the spokesman said.
The South Korean officials were then taken to the Kobangsan Guesthouse, a secluded villa on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where they were greeted by Kim Yong Chol, the North Korean general who visited South Korea for the Olympic Closing Ceremony last month.
It was then, during a 15-minute meeting, that the delegation finalized plans for the dinner banquet with Kim Jong Un, the spokesman said.
“Judging by the seniority of the North’s welcoming party and the housing and security arrangements accorded the delegation, North Korea appears to have worked hard to prepare for this visit,” said the presidential spokesman.
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