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International relations

Visit by North Korean general sparks anger in South

Conservative lawmakers call for suspect in navy attack to face arrest

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer | North Korea

SEOUL -- South Korean conservatives stepped up their opposition Friday to a visit by a North Korean official suspected of plotting deadly attacks on their country, creating a test for President Moon Jae-in's attempt to use the Olympics as an opening for dialogue.

The North's delegation to the Winter Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday will be led by ex-spymaster Kim Yong Chol, considered responsible for the 2010 sinking of South Korea's Cheonan naval ship.

On Friday morning, members of South Korea's leading conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party gathered outside the presidential Blue House here to offer a silent prayer for the 46 victims and urge the government to cancel Kim's visit. Voices could be heard calling for his arrest and for him to stand trial in a military court.

A group of conservative South Korean lawyers filed a murder complaint against Kim with Seoul prosecutors. The lawyers issued a statement calling for Kim's immediate arrest should he enter the country. Associations for Cheonan victims' families and other groups also demanded that Kim's visit be denied.

At the time of the Cheonan disaster, Kim led a top North Korean military intelligence agency. He is also suspected of involvement in the deadly 2010 bombardment of South Korea's Yeonpyeong island, as well as a 2015 land mine explosion in the demilitarized zone that maimed two South Korean soldiers. Although Pyongyang denied involvement in the sinking, South Korea cut off communication and exchanges with North Korea except for some joint economic activities. Seoul also imposed financial sanctions on Kim, and the U.S. has barred his entry.

Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo pay a silent tribute to victims of the Cheonan sinking in this April 2015 photo. The South Korean warship sank near the maritime border with North Korea.   © Reuters

Amid the outcry over Kim's visit, the Unification Ministry issued a statement saying he was being allowed to lead the delegation because he heads the North's agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs, making him responsible for improving relations and discussing denuclearization. The ministry added that his trip could create a chance for dialogue and help bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

As for the Cheonan incident, the ministry said the government had been unable to identify who in North Korea orchestrated the attack.

South Korea's Moon granted one exemption after another to sanctions on North Korea after it agreed to participate in the Winter Games. The exceptions include allowing port entry to a North Korean passenger ferry and letting South Korean airliners land in North Korea.

The South Korean government has said that it discussed these moves with its ally the U.S. But some see North Korea's recent gestures toward the South as an attempt to undermine sanctions under the guise of reconciliation.

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