SEOUL: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam met and shook hands Friday ahead of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
Kim Yong Nam, who is officially leading Pyongyang’s diplomatic delegation to the Games, met Moon at a leaders’ reception ahead of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang.
Moon and his wife received their guests one by one and the two men smiled as they shook hands in a relaxed manner.
There was no sign of Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of the North’s leader Kim Jong Un, who is part of Pyongyang’s delegation.
Kim Yong Nam is the highest-level Northern official ever to visit the South, and was meeting his third South Korean president after participating in North-South summits in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007.
On his left lapel Kim wore a badge depicting the North’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father.
Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook both wore lapel badges of Soohorang, the dancing white tiger mascot of the Winter Games.
A seating plan for the dinner shown on South Korean television showed Kim Yong Nam seated at the top table, in between Olympics chief Thomas Bach and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and directly opposite US Vice President Mike Pence.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also among the group.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister landed in the South on Friday, the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty to set foot in its rival since the Korean War.
Kim Yo Jong was part of a high-level diplomatic delegation led by Kim Yong Nam, the highest-level official ever to go to the South, as the Winter Olympics trigger a diplomatic rapprochement between the rivals.
The last member of the Kim family to set foot in Seoul was Yo Jong’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North’s founder, after his forces invaded in 1950 and the capital fell.
Three years later the conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, and the two sides technically in a state of war.
Now the North is subject to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, while the democratic South has risen to become the world’s 11th-largest economy.
Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong were met by the South’s unification minister and other officials, exchanging pleasantries about the cold weather.
The leader’s sister looked relaxed, smiling calmly as she talked with them, before making her way through the terminal, with four bodyguards surrounding her closely, to take a high-speed train to the Winter Olympics host Pyeongchang.
The delegation’s trip is the diplomatic high point of a Games-driven rapprochement between the two Koreas, with dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in pushing a “peace Olympics” that will open a door for dialogue to alleviate tensions and seek to persuade Pyongyang to give up its atomic ambitions.
Tensions have been high on the peninsula since last year when the North staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear blast and test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) capable of reaching the US mainland.
Leader Kim and US President Donald Trump exchanged threats of war and personal insults, sparking global alarm and fears of a new conflict on the peninsula.
But Kim abruptly announced a plan to send athletes and high-level delegates to the Pyeongchang Winter Games in his new year speech, setting in motion a flurry of cross-border talks and trips.
The announcement—following months of cajoling by Seoul—is seen as a bid to defuse tensions and seek a loosening of the sanctions against it.
US Vice President Pence, who has not ruled out a meeting with the North’s delegates, on Friday called Pyongyang “the most tyrannical regime on the planet” as he met defectors at a memorial to the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette that sank in 2010, killing 46 sailors.
An international investigation concluded it had been torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, a charge Pyongyang denies.
Pence intended to counter “what Prime Minister Abe rightly called a ‘charm offensive’ around the Olympics” by the North, he said.
His objective was “to stand up for the truth and to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change.”