One of the most conspicuous parts of the 2018 PyeongChang closing ceremony happened far above the show. Forget the athletes parading through or the light shows, and look up to the VIP box to see the real drama that happened on Sunday. South Korea's president sat with foreign dignitaries that included Ivanka Trump and North Korea's Kim Yong Chol. The two didn't interact, but the president's daughter was seated just feet away from the former North Korean spy chief.
Kim's surname should sound familiar given that he shares it with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, the country's supreme leader. Spy chief Kim has been a controversial figure in his own right. Many conservative South Koreans protested his arrival in the South and tried to block his entry, as did many of the families of the 46 South Korean seamen whose deaths he allegedly is responsible for.
Among the general's most controversial acts is the attack on the Cheonan warship in 2010. He allegedly orchestrated the torpedoing of the ship. That same year he is thought to have pushed for another attack on the South, this time on Yeonpyeong Island, where shelling killed another four South Koreans. Both civilian and military targets were hit, raising tensions to their highest point since the Korean War ostensibly ended in 1953.
In addition to physical attacks that ended with the deaths of South Koreans, this Kim is also linked to the hacking of Sony Pictures in 2014 that saw the North try to interrupt the release of The Interview, which based a fair amount of its comedic material on the regime. That was part of his job at the General Reconnaissance Bureau from 2009 to 2016. That's the agency in charge of not only spying but also cyber warfare.
In 2016, he switched gears to head the United Front Department. That's the part of the North's government in charge of heading negotiations with the South, which could explain the reason for Kim's presence at the games. He is also the vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, a top leadership post in the North.
The South has been pushing ahead with warming towards the North during the games, while the United States has been more standoffish. Just two days ago the United States imposed more sanctions on North Korea, targeting one North Korean person, 27 companies, and 28 ships that are connected to the North.
Even so, the North has been pushing a thawing with the United States as well. The North condemned the sanctions but left open the possibility of negotiations, according to a statement from South Korea's president. The South also suggested in a statement that they support the thawing between the two Koreas happening at the same time as the North warms up to the USA.
The United States was more reticent. The State Department said:
We are in close contact with the Republic of Korea about our unified response to North Korea. As President Moon stated, "the improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program."
Even though talks were on the table, Ivanka Trump did not interact with the delegation from North Korea in the VIP box, even though they were seated with in arm's reach of each other. Ivanka did clap for the North's athletes, though, as they entered the arena together with the South. She stood with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife.
This was a change from the opening ceremony, when the athletes marched under a unified flag and Vice President Mike Pence stayed seated.