Olive branch in city where Koreas nearly went to war

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Ni­cola Smith in Gangne­ung, South Ko­rea

SOUTH KO­REAN taxi driver Lee Jinkyu still re­calls his ter­ror the mo­ment he wit­nessed North Ko­rean com­man­dos com­ing ashore from a ship­wrecked sub­ma­rine on a balmy night in 1996.

Look­ing out on to the wa­ter from the road­side near the city of Gangne­ung, on South Ko­rea’s east coast, Mr Lee felt a chill of dread when he saw the strange sil­hou­ette of what looked like a “dol­phin” the size of a bus that had run aground on rocks. “I knew I had to sound the alarm,” he said.

The en­su­ing 49-day man­hunt for the 26 spe­cial forces and sub­ma­rine of­fi­cers on board left not only 24 North Kore­ans and 16 south­ern­ers dead, but nearly brought the two Koreas to the brink of armed con­flict.

Now, 22 years later, Mr Lee, 58, hopes his quiet town, nes­tled between the east­ern shore and snow­capped moun­tains, and co-host­ing the Win­ter Olympics just 50 miles from the mil­i­tarised North Ko­rean bor­der, can play a piv­otal role in in­ter-Ko­rean peace.

Yes­ter­day evening, a very dif­fer­ent kind of North Ko­rean del­e­ga­tion ar­rived in Gangne­ung as South Ko­rea’s uni­fi­ca­tion min­is­ter hosted a din­ner for the most high level of­fi­cials to grace the South since the Ko­rean War of 1950-53.

Among them was Kim Yo-jong, the younger sis­ter of Kim Jong-un, act­ing as his per­sonal emis­sary to de­liver a diplo­matic olive branch that would have been un­think­able just one month ear­lier. While shar­ing kim­chi and soju liquor at a lunch with Moon Jae-in, the South Ko­rean pres­i­dent ear­lier, Ms Kim in­vited him on her brother’s be­half to a land­mark sum­mit in Py­ongyang “at the ear­li­est date pos­si­ble”.

Writ­ing in the pres­i­den­tial guest book as she en­tered the meet­ing, Ms Kim ex­pressed her own per­sonal hopes for bet­ter in­ter-Ko­rean re­la­tions. “I ex­pect Py­ongyang and Seoul to get closer in the hearts of our (Ko­rean) peo­ple and the fu­ture of uni­fi­ca­tion and pros­per­ity will be ad­vanced” she wrote.

Mr Lee said he wel­comed the ar­rival of the North Ko­rean Olympic team as a sign of hope.

“It’s good that they’re here be­cause even North Ko­rea has to seek a break­through. They can­not con­tinue as they are now, and I think they also con­sider this a good op­por­tu­nity,” he said.

Fu­ture uni­fi­ca­tion would be “nat­u­ral”, he said. “It would be good not just for Ko­rea but for the world.”

The Win­ter Olympics ap­pears to have brought South Ko­rea to an un­ex­pected diplo­matic cross­roads. Mr Moon must de­cide whether at­tend­ing a sum­mit will help re­duce ten­sions over the North’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, or alien­ate Seoul’s al­lies in the US and Ja­pan.

Yes­ter­day he replied cau­tiously to Kim Jong-un’s bold in­vi­ta­tion, sug­gest­ing that a po­ten­tial meet­ing should be ac­com­plished by “cre­at­ing the right con­di­tions”.

His push for unity with North Ko­rea dur­ing the Olympics has al­ready clashed with the over-arch­ing mes­sage of Mike Pence, the vis­it­ing US vi­cepres­i­dent, who has stressed Py­ongyang’s atroc­i­ties on ev­ery step of his trip. Mr Pence re­mained stony-faced dur­ing the Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony, re­main­ing seated while other lead­ers gave a stand­ing ova­tion to North and South teams march­ing un­der a uni­fied flag.

John Delury, a North Ko­rea ex­pert and pro­fes­sor at Seoul’s Yon­sei Univer­sity, de­scribed Mr Pence’s ap­proach to the trip as a “squan­dered” op­por­tu­nity that had done “un­nec­es­sary dam­age”.

“There can cer­tainly be a healthy ten­sion between Wash­ing­ton’s ap­proach and Seoul’s but you don’t want to have this kind of open dis­com­bob­u­la­tion,” he said. “When there is po­lit­i­cal will in both Koreas, they can move quickly. They have their own re­la­tion­ship, and you can see es­pe­cially the US is go­ing to be strug­gling with this.”

Moon Jae-in greets Kim Jong-un’s sis­ter Kim Yo-jong, who wore a lapel pin fea­tur­ing for­mer North Ko­rean lead­ers Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

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