PYEONGCHANG, South Korea— -- North Korea said it plans to send a high-level delegation to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games on Sunday, according to the South's Unification Ministry.
The eight-member delegation, led by hardline military general and Party Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol, is expected to arrive by land on the Gyeongui Line at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the South's Unification Ministry said. Peaceful Reunification Committee Chairman Ri Son Gwon, who led talks between the neighboring nations last month, will also be a part of the delegation.
"We expect the high-level delegation’s participation in the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to help advance the process of settling peace on the Korean Peninsula including the improvement of inter-Korean relations and denuclearization," South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
Kim Yong Chol has been blacklisted under South Korea’s unilateral sanctions, but Seoul has exempted him for the special occasion. Kim is the former head of North Korea’s reconnaissance bureau, which the South says orchestrated two deadly attacks on them in 2010: the sinking of the Cheonan navy vessel in March and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November.
The ministry said it plans to release more details through a document exchange on the Panmunjeom communications channel between the North and South.
The White House did not say if Ivanka Trump planned to meet with the North’s delegation as a part of her visit.
“This opportunity of direct contact was something that North Korea has desperately wanted for a very long time,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told ABC News in an interview. “North Korea is a master when it comes to diplomatic strategy. They would not have wanted to miss the chance.
“In that sense, I think chances are higher this time for North Korea and the U.S. to meet in some form.”
The North scrapped plans to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Olympics earlier this month, citing new sanctions the U.S. announced before Pence's arrival in South Korea, according to an official in Pence's office.
Pence was slated to meet with Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's nominal head of state, on Feb. 10. The North pulled out at the last minute, the official said.
Pence would most likely have used the opportunity to reiterate the country’s tough stance against North Korea and its ballistic missile program, analysts said.
But the North appears to be much more prepared for a potential U.S. encounter this time, according to Yang, who called Kim Yo Jong “no match” for Pence.
“Kim Yong Chol has a firm political and military grip within North Korea. He is a seasoned politician who has been in charge of policy towards the South for decades,” Yang said. “By sending Kim, North Korea is clearly signaling that they will not step back [or shy away] if the U.S. would want to meet.
“There's much on the table for North and South to talk about, especially the prospect of President Moon accepting an invite from Kim Jong Un. But much would heavily rely on how the U.S. and North Korea react to each other this Sunday."