PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—Ivanka Trump may be President Trump’s answer to the Olympics visit by Kim Jong Un’s younger sister—she certainly matched the North Korean in smiles and style—but which de facto ambassador won the charm offensive at the Winter Games?
The result might be a draw. Ivanka arrived in Seoul on Friday, pumped and primed to beat Kim Yo Jong at her own game. If Kim Yo Jong won praise for her performance on the opening weekend of the Games two weeks ago, Ivanka was here to trump her with a lasting impression of goodwill before the closing ceremony here on Sunday.
But Ivanka seemed to have trouble conveying that message to her host, President Moon Jae-in, at a dinner in the Blue House, Moon’s residence and center of power in Seoul. While Moon talked of the need for “active dialogue” with the North—as seen at the Olympics, where the two Koreas marched as a unified team in the Opening Ceremony—Ivanka instead stressed a “maximum pressure campaign” on Kim Jong Un’s government. It’s a phrase that Moon has assiduously shied away from, particularly with hopes of a post-Olympics thaw.
In addition to describing America’s long-range strategy as it seeks to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Ivanka’s phrase may have hinted at a more urgent significance. On Friday morning, the U.S. announced additional sanctions against North Korea, just as Vice President Mike Pence had warned before his own appearance at the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang.
Despite this, Moon and the first daughter sought some common ground, with Moon noting that President Trump “strongly supports South-North Korean dialogue,” as seen in his “support for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games.”
In her own carefully scripted words, Ivanka gushed about the “strong and enduring commitment” of the U.S. to South Korea. She had no response, however, to Moon’s observation that South Korea and the U.S., for all their efforts “to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, over the past 25 years have not succeeded.”
If that exchange, as quoted in the South Korean media, shows a certain strain in U.S.-South Korean relations, the real test is likely to come on Sunday when Ivanka witnesses the closing of the Olympics here from the same VIP box where Pence sat through the opening. As Pence did, Ivanka will be sitting in the same box with a representative from North Korea. This time, though, the leader of the North Korean delegation will not be the properly smiling Kim Yo Jong but one of the most fearsome North Korean leaders, Kim Yong Chol.
Moon’s political enemies, the conservatives who form a strong opposition bloc, have opened a campaign against Kim Yong Chol that gets at the heart of the deep differences between right and left in the Korean political spectrum. As vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party and a general who once ran the reconnaissance bureau, the intelligence apparatus for the North’s armed forces, Kim Yong Chol has been blamed for the torpedoing of a South Korean navy corvette 10 years ago, in which 46 of the 90 sailors on board were killed. Then, 10 months later (or so say the conservatives) Kim Yong Chol ordered the shelling of a South Korean island off North Korea’s coast, killing two South Korean marines and two civilian workers.
For these offenses, Kim Yong Chol was sanctioned by the conservative leadership, which ran Seoul’s government before Moon’s victory in a snap election last May. (Moon, who had lost to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 election, ran again after the latter was impeached and jailed in a corruption scandal.) Moon’s aides are now justifying Kim Yong Chol’s visit to the Games by saying it’s not clear that the general was directly responsible for either of those two episodes.
Neither Moon’s people nor the Americans want the slightest sign of contact between Ivanka and Kim Yong Chol. A Moon spokesman said there was no way the two would meet.
The implication is, if they must be in the same VIP box at the Olympic Stadium, they’ll be impossibly far apart. Don’t expect handshakes and hellos, which is how Moon’s aides were hoping Pence would engage with Kim Yo Jong (to no avail).
Nor is there any chance that the White House will be saying Ivanka and Kim Yong Chol were supposed to be meeting privately. There will be no stories of a “missed opportunity”—as the White House claimed with Pence, saying that he intended to have a private session with Kim Yong Chol but that the North Koreans called it off after they realized Pence would not let up on demands for halting their nuclear program.
There will, however, be what the South Koreans say will be a “substantive” conversation between Moon and Kim Yong Chol on Monday, the day after the ceremony, when Ivanka is scheduled to depart. Moon may well talk about conditions under which he might accept Kim Jong Un’s invitation for a summit in Pyongyang, while Kim Yong Chol reiterates North Korea’s demand that Seoul cancel U.S.-South Korean war games that are supposed to begin after the Paralympics next month.
Just as Kim Jong Un’s sister delivered her brother's invitation in a letter to Moon, so Ivanka is believed to have been carrying a message from her father. Presumably “maximum pressure” was one of the main points. Whatever Moon may really think of that phrase, the White House is surely expecting him to tell Kim Yong Chol the war games will go on as planned.