A North Korean envoy making a rare visit to South Korea says his country is willing to open talks with the United States, a step toward diplomacy between enemies after a year of North Korean missile and nuclear tests and direct threats of war from both Pyongyang and Washington.
Kim Yong-chol, who Seoul believes masterminded two attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans, attended the end of the Winter Olympics.
He said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wanted to improve ties with Washington and had “ample intentions of holding talks” with its rival, according to the South’s presidential office.
He made the remarks during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is eager to engage the North after one of the most hostile periods in recent years on the Korean Peninsula.
Mr Moon, who was invited during the opening ceremonies to North Korea for a summit with Kim Jong-un
But there will also be widespread scepticism among conservatives in Seoul and Washington, with many wondering if the North is simply looking for economic relief after a series of increasingly tough international sanctions slapped on Pyongyang for its illicit weapons programs, or more time to develop those weapons.
Mr Moon has yet to accept the North’s invitation for a summit, but he has advocated engagement with Pyongyang his entire political career and likely wants to go.
But he must first strike a balance with the US, which has a policy meant to isolate and sanction the North until it agrees to give up its nukes.
Some observers believe that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge to win concessions from South Korea.
There was no immediate comment from the United States, where it was dawn when the statement was released.
Mr Kim was head of the North’s military intelligence when the 2010 attacks on South Korea took place and is currently a vice chairman of the ruling party’s central committee tasked with inter-Korea relations.
With decades of experience, he is one of the most powerful people in the North’s ruling regime.
Seoul decided to temporarily take him off of a blacklist to allow the visit to the Winter Olympics.
South Korea hoped to ease tensions by allowing the North to participate in the games and send senior delegations.
Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, attended the opening ceremony in an historic first — no member of the ruling Kim family had ever travelled to the South before.
She invited Mr Moon to a summit with her brother in Pyongyang.
The delegation to the closing ceremony was expected to follow up on that invitation while in South Korea.
, also said that Washington and Pyongyang should quickly meet to “fundamentally solve” the standoff on the Korean Peninsula.
The North’s delegate, Mr Kim, later sat in the VIP box at Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang for the closing ceremonies, just feet away from Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and the top US military commander on the peninsula, General Vincent Brooks.
The former anti-Seoul military intelligence chief watched K-pop performers and fireworks and stood for the South Korean national anthem.
Even the faintest possibility of diplomacy will be welcomed by many.