Olive branch in city where Koreas nearly went to war
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