SEOUL, South Korea >> The huge civilian entourage Seoul sent to the latest inter-Korean summit includes the third-generation heir of South Korea’s largest business group and a Colorado-born pop diva nicknamed the “Korean Beyonce.”
President Moon Jae-in’s office said the 52-member “special” entourage will help promote civil exchanges and engagement with younger Koreans.
Some experts believe Moon is preparing for the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation projects after diplomacy eventually yields results. Currently, all major joint economic projects between the Koreas remain stalled because of U.S.-led sanctions.
While Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held official talks at the headquarters of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, South Korean businessmen accompanying Moon met with Ri Ryong Nam, the vice-premier of North Korea’s cabinet. Some of the South Korean artists accompanied Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, and Moon’s wife, Kim Jung-sook, on trips on their visit to a children’s hospital and a music university in Pyongyang.
The inclusion of billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong in Moon’s entourage has been controversial since Lee was convicted of crimes related to the massive corruption scandal involving former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Lee initially received a five-year prison term but it was reduced to two and a half years and suspended. Lee awaits a final ruling at Seoul’s Supreme Court. Park was removed from office last year and is serving a lengthy prison term for accepting bribes from Lee and other crimes.
“This is my first visit to Pyongyang and I had my own mental border before I came here, directly seeing and experiencing things and meeting you all,” Lee said during his meeting with Ri Ryong Nam, according to pool reports. “I felt that we are indeed part of the same nation. I hope this opportunity can be used to learn more about each other and build trust.”
Ri joked that he found Lee to be a “very famous person for a variety of reasons,” apparently a rib on Lee over the corruption scandal, before saying he hopes Lee will contribute to “peace and prosperity and unification” between the Koreas.
The liberal Moon won a special by-election last year to replace Park, under whose conservative government tensions with North Korea had been extremely high.
When asked about Lee’s inclusion in Moon’s trip to North Korea, presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok said: “Trials are trials; work is work.”
Other business leaders accompanying Moon include Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, whose company had operated now-suspended joint tours to North Korea, Hyundai Motor Group Vice Chairman Kim Yong-hwan, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won and LG Group CEO Koo Kwang-mo.
K-pop starlet Ailee and rapper Zico, who were described by Moon as pioneering “new culture,” were also part of the entourage. Born in Denver as Lee Ye Jin and raised in New Jersey, Ailee moved to South Korea in 2010 where she began her career. She quickly became one of the country’s biggest popstars after displaying her powerhouse vocals on television shows, where she performed her own songs and also renditions of Beyonce’s “One Night Only” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
“My hair is too yellow, isn’t it,” Ailee playfully asked Ri Sol Ju, the wife of North Korea’s leader, after they were introduced to each other by Moon’s wife.
The South Korean delegation also includes athletes Park Jong-ah, an ice hockey player who was on the joint Korean Olympic team earlier this year, and Hyun Jung-hwa, a retired table tennis player from the combined inter-Korean team in the 1991 World Championships.