(CNSNews.com) – North Korea is sending to the Winter Olympics closing ceremony in South Korea a man Seoul blames for the regime’s deadliest armed attack in more than two decades – the sinking in 2010 of a South Korean navy ship and killing of 46 sailors.
South Korea also accuses Gen. Kim Yong-chol of responsibility for the shelling later that same year of an island near the North-South maritime border, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians; and for landmine explosions in the demilitarized zone in 2015 which injured two of its soldiers.
He’s furthermore suspected of ordering the attempted 2010 assassination of the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected to the South, former secretary of the ruling party, Hwang Jang-yop.
Pyongyang’s choice of the hawkish army general, the former head of its Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) intelligence agency, to lead its eight-person delegation to the closing event appears designed to send a defiant message to the Trump administration, which will be represented at the closing ceremony by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.
Just two weeks ago Vice President Mike Pence’s attendance at the Olympics opening included a pointed visit to the memorial to the 46 sailors killed when the Cheonan was sunk – by a North Korean torpedo, according to a subsequent international investigation.
It was the worst such action by North Korea since it bombed a Korean Air flight in 1987, at the cost of 115 lives.
South Korea’s then-conservative government slapped sanctions on Kim Yong-chol in 2016, but South Korean current liberal president, Moon Jae-in, is more inclined that his predecessor was to seek engagement with Pyongyang.
The government in Seoul said Thursday it had agreed to the general’s visit, in line with its goals of improving relations with the North and advancing peace.
“We are going to accept the visit by North Korea’s high-level delegates as we believe it would improve inter-Korean ties, establish peace on the Korean peninsula and move forward with denuclearization process,” the unification ministry said in a statement.
In the prevailing “peace Olympics” atmosphere, reports from Seoul citing Moon’s office say the president is likely to engage with Kim Yong-chol, both at the closing ceremony and possibly in a separate meeting as well.
South Korean conservatives expressed unhappiness about the looming visit by the hard line general.
“The mastermind of the Cheonan sinking can never set foot in South Korea,” the Korea Herald quoted Jun Hee-kyung, a spokeswoman for the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) as saying.
Jun said Moon should either deny the general entry to the country, or allow him to cross the border for one reason only – “to ask for forgiveness from the victims of the Cheonan sinking.”
LKP lawmakers were planning a visit to the president’s office on Friday to make clear their view that Kim Yong-chol should not be allowed entry.
Kim Yong-chol and the RGB are also the target of U.S. sanctions, imposed in 2010 over their role in regime actions and policies that were deemed to “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
In 2015 then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Kim Yong-chol was the official who likely ordered a damaging cyber-attack the previous year on Sony Pictures, apparently retaliation for a comedy featuring a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un.
His presence at the Olympics in PyeongChang will coincide with that of Ivanka Trump, who is leading the U.S. delegation to the closing ceremony.
While Pence’s earlier visit was aimed primarily at shining a spotlight on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities and human rights abuses, the White House is characterizing Ivanka Trump’s three-day visit largely as an opportunity to celebrating U.S. athletes’ achievements.
“We look forward to congratulating Team USA and celebrating all that our athletes have achieved,” she said in a statement released by the White House. “Their talent, drive, grit and spirit embodies American excellence, and inspire us all.”
(The U.S. as of Thursday had achieved 21 medals including eight golds, putting it fourth in the medal tables, behind Norway, Germany and Canada.)
Ivanka Trump is scheduled to meet with Moon, but administration officials said there were no plans to engage with the North Korean delegation.
It emerged this week that Pence had been prepared to hold a brief meeting with the regime’s representatives – including the dictator’s sister, Kim Yo-jong – at the opening earlier this month, but that the North Koreans had pulled out at the last minute.
A regime mouthpiece responded to news of the aborted interaction by insulting Pence’s and ridiculing his visit to the Olympics.