The entire world paid attention to the possibility of contact between North Korea and the U.S. during the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Games. For the closing ceremony, North Korea sent a high-level delegation that included Choe Kang-il, a senior diplomat in charge of affairs with the U.S. The North Korean delegation’s visit to South Korea coincided with a visit by a U.S. delegation, which included National Security Council director for Korea Allison Hooker, raising prospects for possible working-level contact between the two countries. High officials from the two Koreas, the U.S. and China enjoyed the closing ceremony in one place, and this fact itself certainly carries great significance. Here is Professor Park Won-gon from the School of International Studies, Languages and Literature at Handong Global University.

Only two months ago, tension was escalating on the Korean Peninsula. Some countries, including the U.S., which is South Korea’s traditional ally, even implied that they might not send their athletes to PyeongChang unless their security was ensured. But it turned out South Korea hosted the Olympics in a safe and successful way. The fact that officials from South and North Korea, the U.S. and China sat in one place shows that the event was successful as the Olympics of peace. I think this is the result of the South Korean government’s consistent commitment to talks and engagement with North Korea. After North Korea announced the completion of nuclear armament, as indicated again in leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, South Korea expected that the North would change its stance to seek dialogue, and Pyongyang chose Seoul as its first dialogue partner. South Korea’s strong commitment to engagement with the North played a significant role in that process.

Among the political officials who attended the closing ceremony, the delegations from North Korea and the U.S. attracted the biggest attention. Ivanka Trump, who led the U.S. delegation, said that the purpose of her visit was to seal the strong and lasting alliance between her country and South Korea. During her stay in South Korea, the senior White House adviser refrained from sending any official message about North Korea. But the daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly delivered her father’s message about the need for maximum pressure on Pyongyang in a closed-door meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It is said that Ivanka considered meeting with North Korean defectors before she came to South Korea. But she focused on Olympic-related events, such as rooting for American athletes and attending the closing ceremony, to create a friendly atmosphere between Seoul and Washington.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was concerned that North Korea may hijack the PyeongChang Olympics. During his stay in South Korea for the Olympics, he met with North Korean defectors and visited a memorial for South Korean sailors killed in a North Korean torpedo attack. In contrast to his highly political move, Ivanka’s delegation focused more on the Olympics. Still, she seems to have underlined the need for pressure on North Korea for denuclearization. Ivanka, in effect, serves as the First Lady of the U.S. and symbolically shows various values cherished by the U.S., including freedom. That’s one of her greatest strengths, and she demonstrated it properly during her stay in South Korea. More importantly, she reaffirmed the solid alliance and close cooperation between South Korea and the U.S.

The eight-member North Korean delegation included Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party and director of the United Front Department, and Ri Son-kwon, who is the chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Another member Choe Kang-il, deputy director-general of North American affairs at the Foreign Ministry, drew as much attention as Kim. Choe is considered a key figure handling diplomatic affairs with the U.S.

Kim Yong-chol’s South Korea visit was somewhat anticipated since he takes charge of inter-Korean affairs. He has another title, which he earned in July 2016. It is the chairman of the North Korean preparatory committee for an inter-Korean joint conference among parties and individuals for peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula. That means Kim is in charge of North Korea’s preparations for an improvement in inter-Korean relations and bilateral cooperation. Kim’s latest South Korea visit is, therefore, believed to have focused on making progress in bilateral ties. Another point of attention is Choe Kang-il. The nuclear issue is dealt with in the Foreign Ministry, not in the United Front Department or the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Choe’s visit to South Korea shows that North Korea is open to discussion on the nuclear issue.

At 5 p.m. on February 25, just before the closing ceremony of the Olympics, the North Korean delegation held a closed-door meeting with President Moon in PyeongChang. Moon said that North Korea-U.S. dialogue should be held promptly at least to mend inter-Korean ties and resolve Korean Peninsula issues in a fundamental way. As if on cue, the North Korean delegation said that the North had intentions of holding talks with the U.S. The following day, during the luncheon with security adviser for the South Korean presidential office Chung Eui-yong, Kim Yong-chol made the same remarks to signal North Korea’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the U.S.

It is North Korea’s most forward-looking message ever. Just last week, North Korea’s newspaper Rodong Sinmun said that it would be better to wait for the sea to dry out if the world thinks North Korea will give up on its nuclear weapons. Pyongyang also said that it will not beg for dialogue with the U.S. When Mike Pence visited South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympics, he was scheduled to meet with a North Korean delegation. But the North Koreans unilaterally cancelled it, just two hours before the meeting. But now, the North says the door remains open for dialogue with the U.S. One day before the opening of the PyeongChang Olympics, North Korea held a military parade. But it still participated in the Olympics. Apparently, North Korea wants to tell the international community that it will not pose a threat to neighboring countries, including South Korea, even though it possesses nuclear weapons. The North consistently claims that the outside world should acknowledge it as a nuclear weapons state and establish normal relations with it.

Regarding North Korea’s willingness to hold talks with the U.S., the White House said that it will see if Pyongyang’s message represents the first step along the path to denuclearization. President Trump said on Monday that his administration wants to talk with North Korea but only under the right conditions. Experts are saying that the U.S. still sticks to its previous stance toward North Korea but has left open the possibility of dialogue with the North.

The White House has made it clear that Trump remains committed to achieving the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and that the U.S. will continue with its maximum pressure against the North until it gives up its nuclear weapons programs. Washington has also implied that dialogue with Pyongyang should be focused on the nuclear issue. North Korea claims that it can maintain peace, even with nuclear weapons in its hands. In contrast, the U.S. says that peace can be achieved without nuclear weapons and that only denuclearization can lead to lasting stability on the Korean Peninsula. For the U.S., the possibility of dialogue remains open. Mike Pence was to meet with a North Korean delegation during his visit to South Korea for the Olympics. Basically, the U.S. position is that it may be open to unconditional, informal talks with North Korea. But it shouldn’t be dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Through the talks, the U.S. will clearly demand North Korea’s denuclearization. Washington has maintained a consistent position on this matter.

It seems both Pyongyang and Washington hinted at the possibility of talks. In this situation, South Korea’s role is to find out common elements shared by the two countries, coordinate them and mediate between the two sides so it can draw the North and the U.S. to the dialogue table. This role is becoming increasingly important.

The possibility of talks between North Korea and the U.S. has increased. But it’s uncertain for now whether the two sides will actually hold talks about denuclearization. President Moon said that the U.S. should lower the threshold for talks with North Korea, while the North should in return show willingness toward denuclearization. What he meant is that it is important for both sides to narrow their differing views and start talking and that South Korea could play a role in mediating between the two. For South Korea, it is very crucial to keep this positive momentum going. Some may expect that North Korea-U.S. talks, once realized, will solve everything. But Seoul should also consider the possibility of a crisis and deal with the denuclearization issue from a longer perspective. For that purpose, South Korea needs to use diverse diplomatic means such as engagement, sanctions and deterrence.

The PyeongChang Winter Games were held amid worldwide attention, expectations and concerns. Now that the Olympics are over, it is time for South Korea to make an all-out effort to use the hard-earned reconciliatory mood to advance inter-Korean relations further and realize North Korea-U.S. talks.

[Interview] Defector Dreams of Building Landmark in his N. Korean Hometown

I have a dream of designing and building a house myself for my parents, although it may be a small home. These days, many Koreans wish to live in a house with a backyard. I’ve never designed a Korean traditional house, or hanok, but I hope to build a hanok house with a yard for my parents.

You’ve just heard Nam Jae-hyun, who has been working as an architectural designer for about five years. In 2003, when he was in his early teens, Nam escaped from North Korea with his family. After staying in China for about two years, he came to South Korea in 2005. Before entering high school in South Korea, he wondered what to study. He was born in a fishing village in Chongjin, North Hamgyeong Province of North Korea. Numerous North Korean people starved to death during the so-called Arduous March period in the mid-1990s, and his house, where his family had lived for three generations, was handed over to someone else. The young boy witnessed all these tragic scenes. As his family lived in a rundown cottage, he always longed for a warm, cozy home. This memory led him to become an architectural designer.

I remember my house in North Korea was the shabbiest one in the village. The roof leaked when it rained, and the cold wind blew in through the room. In the North, I always wished to have a nice house of my own. Here in the South, I found myself hoping to design my own home.

Nam entered the architecture department at a technical high school. In his spare time, he earned several national licenses as well. He applied for admission to college for higher learning, but he failed. While he was again preparing to go to college, his high school teacher advised him to accumulate practical experience before entering college. Following the instruction, he got a job at a local architectural design office.

It was a small office, with about ten people working. At first, I didn’t know what was going on there. I simply made coffee, printed things and cleaned the place. About a year later, they let me use the computer. They told me to correct some parts in floor plans by using the computer-aided design (CAD) program, for which I had obtained a license. Later, they gave me a lot of work.

That’s how his career began. At first, he did chores at the office. But he learned how to work while going back and forth between construction sites and the office. As time went by, the office began to recognize his abilities and he got an unusual promotion.

There is a lot of work to do. Usually, we’re supposed to carry out six projects in one session. I was in charge of one or two projects, and I had a couple of employees under me. I also participated in conferences as well. The main job of the office was to draw floor plans for new apartment buildings. I got a pay raise and I was promoted to the team manager, skipping the post of assistant manager. I was delighted at the extraordinary promotion. But the title required responsibility. I assumed the post with huge responsibility, which posed a heavy burden on me. Doing the difficult job, I was able to grow further.

Four years passed. He became used to his work and everything proceeded smoothly. He might have paused for a moment to take a break from his fast-paced life. But he chose to take up a new challenge. He began to prepare for the preliminary exam to become a certified architect.

To become a certified architect, I needed four years of experience after high school graduation. It came to me that I stayed in one place for four years. I thought I should move on, and I quit my job. For one year, I studied at a library. When I went to the exam site, there were about ten people. More than half of them would fail, and I wondered if I would make it. Fortunately, I passed the exam. I studied with my friend, but he failed. I felt sorry for him, since he helped me a lot with my studies. I felt happy to pass the exam, but I couldn’t express my feelings in front of him.

After passing the exam, Nam entered a much bigger company. He has gone through many difficulties since he came to South Korea 13 years ago, but he is quite satisfied with his present life.

I appreciate everything I have. I’m thankful for using hot water when I wash myself at home. Here, I get paid for the work I have done. I had job interviews many times, and companies were willing to interview me, even though they knew I came from North Korea. I thought it was a fair society, which gives people equal opportunities. I’m sure people from North Korea can also lead normal lives here if they make efforts. This is an ideal society. I always feel warm in my heart. I’m even grateful for being able to take the subway when returning home today.

Nam hopes that architecture students will mention his name as their favorite architect or an architect they respect. As an architectural designer from North Korea, he also dreams of designing cities in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula after unification.

When I make an inspection tour in construction sites, I feel happy and alive at the thought of creating my own building there. That’s the moment when I think it is a great job. I wish to design a landmark building in my hometown, Chongjin, just like Namsan Tower and Lotte World Tower in Seoul.

Here’s hoping that Nam will fulfill his dream of building a landmark symbol in his hometown.