UPDATE : 2018.2.18 SUN 10:28
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N.K.'s ceremonial leader to lead high-level delegation to S. Korea

North Korea announced Monday that it will send the communist nation's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam this week to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, is leading a "high-level delegation" to attend the opening ceremony of the games Friday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a one-paragraph report.

It came hours after South Korea's government said Kim, who has long held the status of the North's No. 2 leader in its ostensible power hierarchy, will make a three-day trip here through Sunday for the Olympics.

The North notified the South that the delegation will also include three officials and 18 supportive staffers, but it gave no details, according to the unification ministry.

Kim, 90, serves as the nominal head of state in the North, while the regime is completely controlled by leader Kim Jong-un.

Experts said that North Korea seems to want to break its diplomatic isolation by sending its ceremonial leader to the games, where global leaders will gather together.

South Korea's presidential office welcomed the move as "a reflection of North Korea's willingness to improve inter-Korean ties and help make the PyeongChang Games a success."

"Given Kim Yong-nam is responsible for summit diplomacy as the head of state by the constitution, the North appears to show some sincerity to the South in its own way," a presidential official said.

This file photo shows North Korea's ceremonial leader Kim Yong-nam, who will lead the North's high-level delegation to the South for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)

The North earlier agreed to send athletes, high-ranking officials, performers, cheerleaders and taekwondo demonstrators to the PyeongChang Games in the South.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended a rare olive branch to Seoul in his New Year's Day message after a year of tensions sparked by the North's nuclear and missile programs.

Liberal President Moon Jae-in voiced hope that better inter-Korean relations will pave the way for dialogue between the United States and the North, and the resolution of its nuclear issue.

Moon is known to be hoping that the U.S. and North Korea could hold talks in the South when their high-ranking officials visit here.

During phone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday, Moon expressed hopes that Vice President Mike Pence's upcoming visit will help the peace-building process on the Korean Peninsula, according to the presidential office.

Attention in the South is focused on whether Choe Ryong-hae, de facto No. 2 official and a vice chairman of the ruling party's central committee, would be included in the high-level delegation.

The delegation may also include Kim Yong-chol, head of the Workers' Party of Korea's United Front Department, an agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs; Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee; Ri Su-yong, former foreign minister and current head of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs; and incumbent Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho.

Some experts speculate that Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, may be included though the chance is slim.

But North Koreans floated as possible delegates are under international and stand-alone sanctions over the North's nuclear and missile programs.

Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yong-chol are blacklisted in South Korea's unilateral sanctions, which include an asset freeze, albeit not involving a travel ban.

Choe Hwi is on the list of U.N. Security Council sanctions that also involve a travel ban, and Kim Yo-jong is on the list of U.S. sanctions on human rights.

"The North may have taken into account the fact that Kim Yong-nam is not a blacklisted person," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "Pyongyang appears to assume that his (possible meeting with Moon) could be effectively a summit and to have an intent to improve its image to the outside world."

Kim Yong-nam has yet to visit South Korea, but he met with former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun in Pyongyang ahead of their summits with late former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000 and 2007, respectively. (Yonhap)

Hwi Won  edt@koeapost.com

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