Seoul – South Korea‘s government expressed cautious optimism in making progress with inter-Korean relations in the wake of a landmark visit of North Korean officials at the Winter Olympics.
The North Korean high-level delegation’s three-day visit that ended on Sunday “shows that North Korea has a strong will to improve inter-Korean relations, and that Pyongyang can make unprecedented and bold measures if deemed necessary,” the South’s unification ministry said in a press release.
It was the first time since the 1950-1953 Korean War that a lineal member of ruling Kim family and the constitutional head of state set foot on the South.
The closely-watched 56-hour trip, covered wall-to-wall on news channels, was filled with a string of symbolic moments.
When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong and its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam paid a visit to the presidential Blue House in Seoul to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday, even the lunch menu reflected the pendulum of the inter-Korean relations.
Koreans have traditionally attached a great significance to food, so much so that the literal meaning of the Korean word for ‘family member’ is ‘people eating food together’.
The main dish was a soup with fish balls made of dried Pollack, a delicacy of Gangwon, the province that is hosting the Winter Olympics in the South, but historically also stretches across the border into the North.
Pollack fish are caught off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, travelling back and forth between the northern and the southern waters. It takes a long winter before dried Pollack can be served, as it goes through a freezing and thawing process in the mountains.
“Both the North and the South have spent a very long winter. We prepared this dish in the hope that after a long time of endurance, we can have a hearty and warm time like the deep taste of this dried Pollack,” a Blue House official explained to reporters.
Other side dishes and desserts were from across the Korean Peninsula.
During the meeting, Kim Yo Jong delivered a message from Kim Jong-un to Moon that he is willing to meet the president in near future if he visits Pyongyang. A summit would be the third of its kind between top leaders of two Koreas and first in 11 years.
The delegation has met with Moon on four additional occasions during their stay in the South, putting on a rare show of unity and harmony between two Koreas.
Moon was joined by Kim Yo Jong and North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam during the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics on Friday.
As athletes from the North and the South marched together under the unified Korean Peninsula flag for the first time in 11 years at an international sport event, they stood up and applauded together.
Next day, they watched a women’s ice hockey match between the united Korea team vs Switzerland in Gangneung. It was the first time for two Koreas to form a joint sport team in 27 years and third of its kind in history.
The united team’s crushing defeat of 8 to 0 did not stop them from enjoying the historic moment and cheering players.
‘Longing for reunification’
On the last day, President Moon bade farewell to the North Korean delegation at a North Korean art troupe’s music concert in Seoul.
Seohyeon of South Korea’s popular K-pop band Girls’ Generation made a surprise appearance, and sang a couple of songs together with North Korean singers, including a song longing for reunification.
Kim Yong Nam’s eyes were seen teary, and he wiped his eyes several times, as another song about reunification rang out loud across the music hall.
As Kim Yo Jong put it earlier at the luncheon meeting with Moon, the relations between the North and the South have made faster progress over the last one month than over the previous few years.
Many experts agree that the Moon administration made achievements in opening up channels of communications with the North and putting itself in the driver’s seat to lead Korean affairs.
However, real challenges lie ahead.
Sceptics say that all this is merely a diplomatic maneuver by Pyongyang, to manage the level of tensions, which spiked last year.
“The North Korean government worries about an increasing probability of a US military strike, which might escalate into a major war. So, they decided to look nice for a while and they also hope drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.
As Lankov pointed out, major fundamentals remain unchanged: Pyongyang is determined to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that could strike anywhere in US mainland.
Washington and Tokyo do not seem to be impressed either by what is seen as Pyongyang’s “charm offensive”.
They have stressed that an annual military exercise between South Korea and the US, which has been postponed till the end of the Olympics, should resume. North Korea has reacted to such military drills angrily, calling it a rehearsal for invasion.
The Trump administration made it clear that they would talk for the sake of talks and North Korea’s denuclearisation should be a precondition to talks.
The Moon administration has a tight rope to walk on.
In response to Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Pyongyang, Moon declined to accept it immediately, saying “Let us create the environment first for that to be able to happen”.
He called for the North to actively come to the table of dialogue with the US, stressing that such dialogue should take place in order to develop inter-Korean relations.
Seoul is hoping that Pyongyang would take bold measures.
“The government is making various efforts to create a virtuous cycle of the development of inter-Korean relations and the progress in the North’s nuclear issue,” the unification ministry’s spokesperson Baik Tae-Hyun said, when asked by reporters to elaborate during the press briefing on Monday.
“We believe that there is a shared understanding between two Koreas on improving inter-Korean relations and settling the peace on the Korean peninsula,” he added.