SEOUL, Feb 23 (Reuters) - South Korea said it had approved the Winter Olympic visit by a sanctioned North Korean official, blamed for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean ship that killed 46 sailors, in the pursuit of peace and asked for public understanding.
Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, will lead a high-level delegation at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on Sunday. The delegation will also meet President Moon Jae-in.
He was previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency, which South Korea blamed for the deadly 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy corvette.
North Korea has denied its involvement in the event.
“Under current difficult circumstances, we have decided to focus on whether peace on the Korean peninsula and improvement in inter-Korean relations can be derived from dialogue with (the visiting North Korean officials), not on their past or who they are,” said Unification Ministry Baik Tae-hyun in a media briefing on Friday.
Kim’s visit will also coincide with the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who is scheduled to arrive in South Korea later on Friday to attend a dinner with Moon and later, the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony.
The Blue House has said there are no official opportunities for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet.
South Korea’s decision on Thursday to allow Kim, currently sanctioned by the United States and South Korea, across the border has sparked protest from family members of the dead Cheonan sailors and opposition parties.
Some 70 members from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party staged a protest in front of the presidential Blue House on Friday, demanding the government withdraw its decision.
“President Moon’s decision to accept the North’s facade of peace is a serious issue and it will go down in history as a crime eternal,” said the party in a statement.
A group of family members of those killed in the Cheonan sinking has said it will hold a press conference against the decision on Saturday.
Acknowledging public angst over Kim’s pending visit, Baik said the South’s stance that the Cheonan sinking was instigated by the North has not changed.
“However, what’s important are efforts to create actual peace on the Korean peninsula so these kind of provocations don’t occur again,” said Baik, adding the government would make “various efforts” to assuage the public’s concerns.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he wants to boost the “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” with South Korea after a high-level delegation returned from the Winter Olympics, while the United States has stressed the need to intensify pressure to force North Korea to give up his nuclear weapons.
Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of United Nations sanctions. However, it has now been more than two months since its last missile test in late November. (Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Michael Perry)