November 08, 2018 11:07
The central government in Seoul has no plan to meet a delegation of seven senior North Korean officials who will visit Gyeonggi Province at the invitation of the local government next week, the Unification Ministry said Wednesday.
The delegation will be led by Ri Jong-hyok, the vice chairman of the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, and Kim Song-hye of the United Front Department.
Asked by reporters whether the government has plans to meet them, ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said, "They're coming to attend an event sponsored by a local government and civic groups. I understand that [North Korea] hasn't asked our government's opinion about it."
But the denial has raised eyebrows because the North Korean officials are very senior cross-border negotiators.
Ri, a veteran apparatchik handling South Korean affairs, was deeply involved in launching package tours to Mt. Kumgang and the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex. There is speculation that he will deliver a letter to Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung from leader Kim Jong-un inviting Pope Francis to Pyongyang.
Kim Song-hye, one of the few female apparatchiks involved in South Korean affairs, has attended various kinds of cross-border talks since 2005. She accompanied Kim Jong-un's sister Yo-jong during her visit to South Korea in February and visited the U.S. in late May with Kim Jong-un's right-hand man Kim Yong-chol. She was also to have attended high-level U.S.-North Korea talks scheduled for Thursday in New York, but they were canceled at the last minute.
"It's unusual for senior North Korean officials to attend an event sponsored by civic groups," a researcher at a government-funded think tank pointed out. "This suggests that they have something to discuss in secret with South Korean officials."
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