Diplomacy or mere decorum for Kim Yong Nam-led Olympic delegation?

In a February 4 message to the South, North Korea announced that they will send a
22-person delegation, led by President of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam, to the
Pyeongchang Olympics Opening Ceremony on Friday. Image: Yonhap News Agency

North Korea has announced that Kim Yong Nam, President of the Supreme People’s Assembly, will lead a high-level delegation set to attend the February 9 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony. The move to send the country’s ceremonial head of state is being perceived as an attempt to appear as “a normal nation engaging in normal diplomatic behavior.”

According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, the North sent notification on February 4 regarding the high-level delegation, stating that Kim Yong Nam would lead a group of 22 members, with three additional top-level delegates and 18 supporting staff. The group is expected to stay in the South from February 9 to 11.

While Kim Yong Nam is officially the country’s second-most powerful figure behind Kim Jong Un, it is widely believed that he wields less power than Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, for example, and has little influence over the country’s politics.

But by sending their nominal head of state, the North is expecting the rest of the world tuning in to the Olympics and the other guests in attendance to see them as a typical country carrying out proper diplomatic activity, perhaps comparing it to the attendance of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or US Vice President Mike Pence.

Kim has decades of diplomatic experience and has also traveled abroad in high-level delegations many times in the past. He majored in diplomacy and graduated from Moscow University, going on to work for the North’s foreign service. But since he also traveled to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, some are viewing his Pyeongchang appearance as nothing more than a reprisal of this role.

With the expected attendance of other top leaders like UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Chinese Politburo member Han Zheng in addition to Prime Minister Abe and Vice President Pence, there is also the possibility that Kim Yong Nam may attempt to engage in diplomacy with other leaders.

“The decision to send Kim Yong Nam is important in a diplomatic sense more so than a political one,” Woosuk University Visiting Professor Jeon Hyeon Joon told Daily NK on February 5. “More than a signal that they are ready to have sincere discussions with the South over denuclearization, it can be interpreted merely as displaying the proper diplomatic protocol for the occasion.”

Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, believes that Kim Yong Nam’s appearance is part of the North’s “peaceful diplomatic message to the UN, the US, Japan, and others,” pointing to his symbolic diplomatic role and past experience attending Olympics ceremonies.

But North Korea continues to keep observers in suspense as they have not yet announced the other three top-level delegates that will be joining Kim Yong Nam, leaving open the possibility of sending Choe Ryong Hae or Kim Yo Jong.

Other potential figures include Director of International Affairs Ri Su Yong, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho, Director of South Korean Affairs and Head of the United Front Department Kim Yong Chol, Chairman of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification Ri Son Gwon, National Sports Commission Chairman Choe Hui, and Olympic Committee President and Sports Minister Kim Il Guk.

Regarding the details of the high-level delegation’s schedule, the North has revealed that they will attend the February 10 joint North-South Korean women’s ice hockey match vs. Switzerland.

Cheong Seong Jang, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, believes that if Kim Yong Nam ends up meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae In, “It is possible that he will carry a message from Kim Jong Un inviting Moon to Pyongyang.”