South Korea delegation to depart for Pyongyang to bring US, North to talks

File photo: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a tower at the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea.

SEOUL – A South Korean delegation led by senior security officials will leave for North Korea on Monday (March 5) afternoon, a presidential official said, as they aim to bring Pyongyang and Washington together for talks on the North’s nuclear programme.

The 10-member delegation, headed by National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong, will leave South Korea at approximately 0500 GMT from Seoul Air Base in Seongnam City near Seoul, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Chung was expected to give brief remarks on his team’s pending visit to the North before leaving. He will be accompanied by National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.

“I understand the delegation’s visit is geared towards prompting talks between the United States and North Korea for progress in denuclearising the Korean peninsula,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a regular briefing.

“In that regard, we hope a positive atmosphere will be created,” Baik said.

Thawing relations between North and South Korea have prompted speculation of future direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang after months of tension and exchanges of insults between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that have fuelled fears of war.

North Korea has not carried out any weapons tests since late November, when it tested its largest intercontinental ballistic missile. Inter-Korean talks began after Kim Jong Un stated in his New Year’s address he wanted to engage the South.

Pyongyang has since sent athletes to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, as well as a high-ranking delegation that included Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Both North Korea and the United States have expressed their willingness to talk to each other, but Washington demands Pyongyang“denuke” first. The North says it will not sit with the United States under preconditions.

Pyongyang has also fretted over a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise, which it sees as practice for war, that was postponed for the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics.

South Korean officials have said the drills will start next month as planned.

The South Korean delegation leaving on Monday will use a special direct flight to Pyongyang rather than a chartered jet from a private airline.

 The decision to use a special aircraft, most likely one of the private military jets used by President Moon Jae-in according to administration sources, was unrelated to U.S. sanctions that bar vessels and aircraft that have visited North Korea from entering the United States for six months.

However, the details of the delegation’s flight had already been negotiated with Washington regardless of the sanctions, the officials said.

Seoul had similar discussions with Washington earlier this year when it sent South Korean athletes and journalists for a joint training session at the North’s Masikryong ski resort ahead of the Olympics.

Then, the South Koreans had taken a chartered flight operated by Asiana Airlines Inc.