North Korea relishes world’s interest in its high-level Olympic delegation

A high-level North Korean delegation attended the closing ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
 Members included then Vice Marshal of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Hwang Pyong So (left),
Secretary for the United Front Department and South Korean policy Kim Yang Gon (middle),
and then Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission Choe Ryong Hae (right).
 Image: Yonhap News Agency

After weeks of negotiations, North and South Korea have in recent days explored exchanges and cooperation for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, which will continue in the coming weeks as the planned joint event draws near. But the North has yet to reveal details of the top-level delegation it plans to send to the Olympics, which analysts believe will be structured to grab as much attention from the international community as possible.

This high-level delegation was first announced in a joint statement delivered at the conclusion of the first day of North-South talks at Panmunjom on January 9. In working-level talks that followed in the days after, the North added details regarding athletes, cheer squad, orchestra, art troupe, inspection team (which has since visited the South), and other participants it plans to send to the games.

On January 17, North Korean negotiators expressed their desire to again discuss the high-level delegation, but further discussion between the two sides has not yet taken place.

Experts believe that the North intends to use the Olympics to their advantage, waiting for the right time to attract the greatest global attention and maximize the benefits of any further announcements.

“The North Korean leadership is thinking about how to best use the opportunity of the Olympics, and are carefully calculating their strategy,” said Cho Han Bum, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). “They believe the high-level delegation can have a strong effect, so it’s possible they’re holding out on this point until the right moment in order to maximize outcomes.”

Nam Kwang Kyu of the Maebong Unification Research Center added that, “In accordance with their broader strategy, North Korea will make an announcement about the high-level delegation when they are squarely in the center of the global spotlight in the run-up to the Olympics.”

“North Korea believes there is a possibility of talks with the US coinciding with the Olympics, and is planning the high-level delegation with this in mind,” Dr. Cho continued. He believes it is possible that the North will send Workers’ Party Vice Chairman Choe Ryong Hae, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam, or even the new Minister of State Security Jong Kyong Thaek as part of the delegation.

Experts are predicting that in the time around the Olympics, the North will take actions for dramatic effect in an attempt to surprise the international community. Kim Jong Un may even send his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who was recently promoted to the Party’s central Political Bureau.

“Choe Ryong Hae stands the greatest chance of joining the delegation because he previously came to South Korea as part of a high-level delegation that visited during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon,” Dr. Nam said. “But they may also opt to not send such a predictable choice, who may have limited effect in the eyes of the international community. Kim Jong Un’s younger sister on the other hand – who may be perceived as a stand-in for the leader himself – would cause quite a stir in the media.”

South Korea has already confirmed that coinciding with the Olympic Games, it will receive at least 26 top-level leaders from 21 countries, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US Vice President Mike Pence, and Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng.

Although the North has not yet released information regarding its own high-level envoy, the stage is set for a potential meeting between US Vice President Pence and a top-level member of North Korea’s government. However, with continued US insistence on denuclearization and the North’s steadfast rejection of this as a starting point for dialogue, it is difficult to determine the benefits of such a meeting.