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International Relations

As two Koreas edge closer, US and Japan grow wary

Kim Jong Un may be using Seoul to approach Washington

South Korean President Kim Jae-in, left, shakes hands with Kim Yo Jong, sister and special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Courtesy of South Korean Office of the President)

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un played a strong card as the Winter Olympics opened in Pyongchang. The appearance of a sudden opening in relations between two Koreas poses a threat to the alliance between the U.S., South Korea and Japan in their effort to maintain "maximum pressure" on North Korea.

At Seoul's presidential Blue House on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, announced suddenly: "I'm a special envoy sent by Chairman Kim Jong Un," and began to read aloud a letter from him asking South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang to meet with the northern leader "at an early date."

While Moon seemed receptive to the idea, he avoided making an immediate decision, perhaps taking into account that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had avoided contact with the North's delegates at a reception Friday. 

According to South Korea's presidential Blue House, Moon responded: "Let us make preparations to realize the meeting."

Kim Yo Jong is the first immediate relative of a North Korean leader to visit South Korea. Estimated to be around 30 years old, she is perhaps the only person to give direct opinions to Kim Jong Un. The South Korean government gives her VIP treatment, with security accorded to a head of a government.

About the necessary "preparations" for a summit, the Blue House said the two countries should work toward the swift restoration of their relationship, and toward early dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. 

Seoul has worked closely with Washington toward the denuclearization of North Korea.

In Kim Jong Un's New Year's message, his previously hostile tone toward South Korea had become much more friendly. In little more than a month since, the North's leader has taken unilateral action, perhaps from a sense of urgency.

North Korea considers the U.S. its sole counterparty in negotiations over its nuclear program. But U.S. President Donald Trump is not likely to easily change his hardline stance. Kim appears to have decided to approach South Korea first, and leverage the link with Seoul to bring about talks with Washington.

During the Saturday meeting at the Blue House, the two sides agreed to promote dialogue and cooperation between their countries. Increasing dialogue with Seoul would open up opportunities for Pyongyang to seek financial aid, while at the same time buying time to complete development of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Moon, for his part, may find the offer of talks with Kim tempting amid mounting conflicts with Japan, China, and the U.S. Such conflicts include disagreement with Japan over the "comfort women" issue; with the U.S. over the Trump administration's desire to review the U.S. free-trade pact with South Korea; and with China over concerns about Korea's deployment of U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile technology.

According to South Korean media, this is the first time in more than eight years that North Korean senior officials visited the Blue House -- since August 2009, when the North's delegates paid respects at the funeral of former president Kim Dae-jung. 

At events surrounding the opening of the Olympics, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence avoided direct contact with North Korean delegates, maintaining a chilly attitude. The U.S. has said it would accept dialogue with the North if it shows willingness to give up its nuclear weapons program.

At a reception on Friday, Pence shook hands with delegates from participating countries, but not with Kim Yong Nam, the leader of North Korea's Olympic delegation. During the opening ceremony, the vice president sat next to Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but did not speak to Kim, who was seated behind them. 

Pence reportedly tried to present a picture of himself, Moon, Abe together, emphasizing their strong alliance against the North.

On the surface, Washington seems to welcome the move toward dialogue between the two Koreas. But it is highly cautious about Seoul moving toward restoring relations with Pyongyang. The worst scenario for Washington would be for the North to gain an advantage by realizing a summit between the two Koreas.

Nikkei staff writer Kenichi Yamada in Seoul contributed to the story.

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