SEOUL (Reuters) - The make-up of the South Korean delegation that set off on Monday for talks in North Korea underscores South Korea’s main objective, not just to ease tension between the two Koreas but to nudge North Korea and the United States into talks.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent the 10-member delegation to North Korea days after the resumption of stalled inter-Korean dialogue at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, following more than a year of rising tension, and fear of war, over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
The delegation is led by two minister-level security officials - National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong, who has close contacts in the United States, and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, who is known as South Korea’s top North Korea negotiator.
While Suh was widely expected to go, the selection of Chung as leader of the delegation was a “last-minute” decision made with an eye on convincing the United States to buy into the negotiations that South Korea hopes to initiate, officials said.
“The delegation is meant to bring some kind of outcome with which to persuade the United States”, a senior official with Moon’s party told Reuters.
The delegation has its work cut out on a two-day visit as it faces off with North Korea’s notoriously unpredictable government, which has declared it will never abandon its nuclear weapons.
But the composition of the team, and Chung’s inclusion in particular, highlights that South Korea is also looking ahead to the challenge of convincing the United States to soften its position.
The delegation, which met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un soon after arriving in Pyongyang, is scheduled to visit Washington after its North Korean trip.
The United States says that it will only talk to North Korea if it is willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons. But that is something that North Korea has ruled out.
Hoping for compromise, Moon has said the United States should “lower the threshold” for talks and North Korea should “show it is willing to denuclearise”.
Chung is a former South Korean ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva who has built a close relationship with senior officials in the United States, in particular with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“Ultimately, the goal is direct talks between the North and the United States, and Chung is the one who has a voice in Washington,” the ruling party official said.
Chung’s background is primarily in multilateral diplomacy, and his appointment last year as top national security adviser - a post previously dominated by military commanders - was seen as evidence of the Moon administration’s shift away from military confrontation in favour of diplomacy.
Intelligence chief Suh is a career spy agency official who was instrumental in setting up two previous summits between the North and South.
Suh and Moon served in the administration of liberal President Roh Moo-hyun who spearheaded a “sunshine policy” of engaging with North Korea in the 2000s.
Lee Jong-seok, a former unification minister who visited Pyongyang with Suh in 2003 as Roh’s special envoys, called Suh “No.1 negotiator with the North” in his 2014 memoir.
The inclusion of Chung and Suh is clearly aimed at fielding a team experienced in handling both North Korea and the United States, said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.
“This combination is significant and telling,” she said.
“Sending both of them foreshadows the themes of President Moon’s message to Pyongyang. It shows that Moon is placing heavy, if not almost equal, importance on both inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea relations.”
Another important member of the delegation is Yun Kun-young, a senior Blue House official and one of Moon’s closest and longest-serving aides.
Though his position is not directly related to security, his inclusion is a “symbolic” underscoring of Moon’s commitment to the talks, the ruling party official said.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel