Scenarios that critics were worried are unfolding within South Korea and overseas ahead of a visit to South Korea by Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee of North Korea, to attend the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. South Korea’s main opposition Liberty Korea Party and Bareun Future Party demanded the government to withdraw its decision to allow Kim’s visit to the South. Liberty Korea Party lawmakers went to the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae en masse where they protested, saying, “Kim Yong Chol, the main culprit of the sinking of the Cheonan warship, should be referred to a court-martial.” The public bulletin of the presidential office’s website was awash with a flurry of public appeals to deny Kim Yong Chol’s visit. The United States also expressed discontent about Kim’s visit. Heather Nauert, spokeswoman of the State Department, said she hopes to see Kim (Yong Chol) take a time to visit the (Cheonan) memorial and ask himself what he is responsible for. The Cheonan Memorial is the site where the South Korean naval warship, which was sunken by the North’s torpedo attack, is on display.
Extremely severe conflict within the South Korean society over Kim Yong Chol’s visit was already predicted. The South Korean government has been effectively entrapped by the plot of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who sought to send to the South the main perpetrator of its provocation that claimed more than 40 South Korean soldiers as its chief delegate. Nevertheless, Seoul accepted without hesitance when it was informed that Kim Yong Chol would be leading the North Korean delegation. South Korea’s Unification Ministry only focused on making excuse even by issuing a briefing document on Friday, saying that the Cheonan’s sinking was committed by the North and that although it is true Kim Yong Chol was the head of the reconnaissance politburo at the time of the sinking, there are certain barriers to identifying a specific person as culprit. The ministry went on to say that despite the South Korean public’s opposition it “anticipates people’s broad-minded understanding based on the grand vision of settlement of peace on the Korean Peninsula.” The South Korean government is thus stubbornly insisting that it will more than welcome as long as thawing mood in the inter-Korean relations continues to persist whoever is visiting the South.
Worse yet, Kim Yong Chol’s visit will inevitably drive wedge between South Korea and the United States. The fact Washington has displayed cold indifference by asking Kim Yong Chol just to visit the Cheonan Memorial constitutes indirect yet public disclosure of its discontent towards the South Korean government. While Washington cannot afford to bluntly deny Seoul’s request to accept temporary waiving of sanctions against Kim Yong Chol, who is subject to Washington’s sanction, it has effective suggested that Washington can hardly understand Seoul’s acts as well. Washington seems to be suspecting that Seoul is moving to reverse Washington’s stance to impose the heaviest pressure on Pyongyang.
Despite such conflict and divisions, the South Korean government seems to have no intention to withdraw its decision to accept Kim’s visit. The government claims that since Kim is the head of the North’s United Front Department in charge of inter-Korean relations, he should be Seoul’s counterpart for negotiations, while stressing that his visit is also inevitable to increase the probability for Pyongyang-Washington dialogue. Seoul has expectations that the North Korean delegation leader will bring Kim Jong Un’s reply to President Moon Jae-in’s message to Kim Yo Jong, which suggested “Progress in inter-Korean relations should go in parallel with Washington-Pyongyang dialogue.” Mindful of strong sentiment of opposition, the South Korean presidential office will reportedly seek to prevent Kim’s stay from being seen as “special treatment” by holding President Moon’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol at an external site rather than the presidential office.
Whatever message Kim Yong Chol brings to Seoul, however, what is more important is Seoul’s stance in dealing with Pyongyang. If South Korea behaves as if it is accepting whatever North Korea wants and being swayed by the North, Seoul will have little influence in the race to gain the upper hand in the campaign for Pyongyang’s denuclearization even if there are additional inter-Korean contacts or if Seoul brings Pyongyang to a dialogue table with Washington. At the very least, the South should make demand for explanations or apology from the North for the issues it needs to. Otherwise, conflict within the South Korean society and between Seoul and Washington will only deepen, let alone securing Kim Jong Un’s bold decision to denuclearization. Geopolitical situation post-the Pyeongchang Olympics is already worrisome.