Kimchi, soju and passing notes: how the Winter Olympics could unify Korea

After taking in tigers, drum brigades and national parades during the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, folks in South Korea were treated to another made-for-TV event: a historic meeting between high-ranking officials from both halves of the Korean Peninsula.

According to the BBC News, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spent three hours chatting, chowing down on kimchi and sipping soju with Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the president palace in Seoul on Saturday. The two met face-to-face during the Opening Ceremony. Per CNN‘s Steve George, Will Ripley and James Griffith, the lunch meeting was broadcast live on South Korean TV.

But Ms. Kim — the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953 — wasn’t there just to shake hands and smile for the camera. Over the course of the summit, which also included Kim Yong-nam (North Korea’s ceremonial head of state) and Ri Son-gwon (North Korea’s chief negotiator), Ms. Kim passed a handwritten note from her brother to South Korea’s President.

And what, pray tell, did that epistle contain? An invitation for President Moon to visit Pyongyang at the “earliest date possible,” per The Guardian’s Benjamin Haas. Should Moon make his way north, it would mark the first meeting between the top officials of the two Koreas since 2007, when South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il discussed nuclear non-proliferation and economic cooperation.

Kim Yo Jong, left, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday. (AP)
Kim Yo Jong, left, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday. (AP)

So far, the South Korean President seems keen to take up his North Korean counterpart’s offer, which comes as no surprise. Moon ran for (and won) his country’s highest office on a platform of diplomacy with the North.

That stance, though, could complicate South Korea’s relations with the United States. The Trump Administration, represented by Vice President Mike Pence in PyeongChang, has warned the South Koreans about falling for North Korea’s “charm offensive” at the Winter Games. Where Moon and Ms. Kim reportedly exchanged pleasantries about the frosty weather, Pence offered her little more than a cold shoulder while seated next to her at the Opening Ceremony.

Moon will continue to warm relations across the Korean Peninsula on Saturday, when he and Kim Yong-nam watch Korea’s women’s hockey team — the first-ever unified squad — open group play against Switzerland. Any real progress between the two nations, though, will require America’s participation in some capacity.

“An early resumption of dialogue between the United States and the North is needed also for the development of the South-North Korean relationship,” Moon said through a spokesperson.

For now, America seems unlikely to come to the negotiating table with North Korea at the Olympics. Earlier in the week, Pence accused Pyongyang of trying to “hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games.” The North, meanwhile, insisted it has “no intention to meet the U.S. side.”

So as pleasant as that lunch between North and South Korean leadership may have been, it won’t mean much until diplomats from the U.S. settle in for some of the local delicacies.

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