Kim Yong Nam will be the most senior North Korean official ever to visit the South. The announcement has raised hopes for high-level inter-Korean talks during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
North Korea's ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam (left in picture) will make an unprecedented visit to South Korea this week and attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, would lead a 22-strong delegation that is expected to arrive in South Korea on Friday for a three-day trip, Seoul's Unification Ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
North Korea's state-run news agency KCNA confirmed the news on Monday, saying the delegation would "soon visit South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the 23rd Winter Olympics."
The North dispatching a high-level delegation was part of agreements the two Koreas struck last month over Olympic cooperation, under which the North is sending 22 athletes to the Pyeongchang Games.
The announcement has raised hopes for high-level inter-Korean talks after a year of high tensions over North Korea's illicit nuclear and missile programs.
The South's presidential Blue House in Seoul said the visit by Kim would create "various opportunities" for high-level talks.
"(Kim's visit) shows North Korea's resolve for improved inter-Korean relations and the success of the Olympics, as well as its sincere, earnest attitude," Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a news briefing on Monday.
The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics will also be attended by US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, among other world leaders.
An Olympic Truce Mural has been installed at the Games village as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Read more: Opinion: Kim Jong Un's Olympic Games
Who is Kim Yong Nam?
As the leader of North Korea's ruling party-controlled parliament, Kim Yong Nam is the nominal head of North Korea.
He is not to be confused with former leader Kim Jong Il's eldest son, also called Kim Jong Nam, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances in Malaysia last year.
Kim, who is not a close blood relative of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will be the highest-level Northern official ever to visit the South, but he is largely considered a figurehead.
He also led the North's delegations to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
He is not blacklisted by the United Nations or the United States, because he is not believed to be involved in the North's nuclear program.
The 90-year-old has been seen frequently on state TV making propaganda-filled speeches on key state anniversaries or receiving visiting foreign dignitaries.
Meeting with South Korean president?
In 2014, Choe Ryong Hae, a close aide to Kim Jong Un, was part of a high-level delegation to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Choe is now subject to unilateral sanctions imposed by South Korea in 2016.
The 2014 delegation did not go to the presidential Blue House or meet then-South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, and only held talks with Park's national security adviser and the then-unification minister.
But experts say things could be different this time around.
Kim Yong Nam's official status is high enough to warrant a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank told the AFP news agency.
"At least in the North's party hierarchy, Kim Yong Nam is the second-highest official right below Kim Jong Un," he said. "I'd see it as a sign of determination by Kim Jong Un to improve inter-Korea ties."
ap/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)