A North Korean general believed to be behind a number of attacks on South Korea is to head up the state’s delegation to the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony.
General Kim Yong-chol oversaw Pyonyang’s Reconnaissance Bureau, the regime’s clandestine intelligence agency, and is believed to be the mastermind behind the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010, which killed 46 of its crew.
Eight months later, North Korean artillery bombarded the island of Yeonpyeongdo, 50 miles west of the port city of Incheon, killing two South Korean soldiers and a further two civilians.
The South Korean government announced on Thursday that it will permit Pyongyang’s eight-strong delegation to attend the ceremony and that Moon Jae-in, the South’s president, will meet with them.
Mr Moon is also due to meet with Ivanka Trump, the US president’s daughter and special advisor, who is due to arrive in Seoul on Friday to head up the US delegation at the closing ceremony.
The South Korean government said it hoped US officials attending would also meet with the North Koreans.
But Mike Pence, the US vice president, appeared to pour water on that possibility of a face-to-face meeting after he attacked the North Korean regime on Thursday.
Mr Pence, who led the US delegation at the opening ceremony, said that the US "doesn’t stand with murderous dictatorships, we stand up to murderous dictatorships".
South Korea’s opposition parties have expressed their outrage at the news that Gen Kim will attend the ceremony, accusing Mr Moon of kow-towing to the regime in Pyongyang.
“The main culprit of the Cheonan’s sinking can never set foot on the land of the Republic of Korea”, Jun Hee-kyung, of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, said.
Mrs Jun called North Korea’s decision to send Gen Kim to the closing ceremony is “shameless” and a “rare humiliation” for the South.
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She added that the only way Gen Kim should be permitted to enter South Korea would be if he was coming to “kneel before our people”, Yonhap news reported.
Kim Hyun, a spokesman for the South Korean government, said the visit would “contribute to easing tensions" between the two countries.
He added that he hoped the North’s officials will meet with the US delegation that will be attending the ceremony, including Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
The White House confirmed on Wednesday that President Donald Trump has asked his eldest daughter to lead the “high-level delegation” to the ceremony in Pyeongchang.
US officials have already ruled out the possibility that Ms Trump would meet with North Koreans during her three-day stay.
Instead, she is scheduled to meet with female defectors from North Korea to hear about their experiences.
Mr Pence led the US delegation at the games opening ceremony and said he chose not to engage with Kim Jong-un’s sister during the event because she was part of "an evil family clique that brutalises, subjugates, starves and imprisons its 25 million people".
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Mr Pence also hit out at the international media for "fawning over" Mr Kim’s sister who he called a "central pillar" of the "tyrannical and oppressive regime".
"That’s why the US government has sanctioned her for her role in abetting North Korea’s horrendous human rights abuses and crimes against humanity," he said.
North Korea war puff
"So for all those in the media who think I should have stood and cheered with the North Koreans – I say, the US doesn’t stand with murderous dictatorships, we stand up to murderous dictatorships."
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Earlier this week it emerged that Mr Pence and North Korean officials had planned to meet secretly during his trip to the games, but Pyongyang scrapped the talks after the US vice president denounced abuses from the "murderous regime".
Mr Moon has declared that South Korea’s relations with the US are “rock solid” and “as robust as ever”, despite concerns that the apparent detente on the peninsula may be sidelining the US.
He claimed that Mr Trump supports his efforts to engage North Korea in discussions, including a possible bilateral summit that Pyongyang has proposed.