Kim Yong-nam

Reports say North Korea is set to send the most senior official ever to South Korea, amid an easing of tensions during the Winter Olympics.

Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of state, will lead a 22-member delegation to the South beginning on Friday, said the South’s unification ministry.

The two Koreas’ athletes will march under one flag at the opening ceremony.

The north’s participation in the games is widely seen as a diplomatic manoeuvre by Pyongyang.

It faces growing international pressure and sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes.

The 90-year-old Kim Yong-nam has seen the rule of all three North Korean leaders in his career.

He is the ceremonial head of state who receives credentials from foreign diplomats in Pyongyang. As such, he is usually responsible for sending condolences or congratulatory messages to foreign leaders.

He has been the president of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, since 1998.

Unlike the current leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yong-nam has travelled abroad on official visits. In August 2017, he travelled to Iran to attend President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony for his second term in office.

He also attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia in 2014.

Mr Kim is said to be a loyal follower of the top leadership. “As Kim is known to be acting and speaking under the country’s guidance, he makes no mistakes. That’s why he could keep his high-level post in a country where political purges are common,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted one North Korean defector as saying.

An unnamed official from the South’s presidential Blue House says Mr Kim’s visit reflected a willingness on the part of North Korea to improve inter-Korean relations, and demonstrated the North’s sincerity.

-BBC