Senior North Korean officials, including the only sister of the North’s leader, arrived in South Korea on Friday, starting a three-day trip that was to include a meeting with South Korea’s president, the highest-level inter-Korean contact in more than a decade.
Although the delegation is officially led by Kim Yong Nam, who as president of the Presidium of the North Korean parliament is the North’s nominal head of state, it is Kim Yo Jong’s inclusion that has made the trip highly symbolic.
Kim Yo Jong, believed to be 30, is the first immediate member of the North’s ruling family to set foot in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. She is also an important player in her brother’s secretive administration and is considered to be one of his most trusted aides.
On Friday evening, the North Korean visitors are expected to join foreign dignitaries, including Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics being held in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang.
The convergence of political figures raises the possibility of extraordinary diplomatic encounters between the North Koreans and the leaders of their sworn enemies.
Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, has said he will host a luncheon for the North Koreans on Saturday. It remained unclear whether Moon, a dogged proponent of dialogue with North Korea, would try to broker a meeting between Pence and the North Koreans.
During a dinner with Pence on Thursday, Moon said he hoped to use North Korea’s participation in the Olympics to explore the chances of opening broader talks on resolving the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim Jong Un rattled the world last year by accelerating his efforts to build a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States mainland. He tested a series of long-range missiles and conducted his country’s most powerful nuclear test.
After ignoring Moon’s repeated invitations to the Olympics, Kim Jong Un in a New Year’s Day speech proposed sending North Korean athletes to the games — at the same time claiming to have a “nuclear button” on his desk that could launch missiles capable of reaching the continental United States.
The Olympics gesture set off a series of talks between the two Koreas, which have dominated headlines in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Both Koreas agreed to march together in the opening ceremony and to compete side by side in women’s ice hockey, forming their first joint Olympic team. Hundreds of musicians and singers from the North have arrived to perform on the sidelines of the games.
Kim Yo Jong’s appearance in South Korea will be a rare instance of inter-Korean contact.
In 2000, her father, Kim Jong Il, held a summit meeting with Kim Dae-jung, then South Korea’s president, but he did not keep his promise to visit the South for a second meeting. In 2007, Roh Moo-hyun, then the South’s president, visited North Korea for the second inter-Korean summit meeting.
Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and power was passed to his third son, Kim Jong Un.
It remained unclear whether Kim Jong Un was sending a message to Moon through his sister. Moon has said he would be willing to meet Kim if he was reasonably sure that such a meeting would help end the crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons and missile development program.
A flurry of interactions between the two Koreas has created a lull in the nuclear standoff. But Pence has warned that the world should not allow North Korea to “use the powerful imagery and backdrop of the Olympics to paper over” its nuclear threats.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.