The funeral yesterday of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, whose efforts to reconcile the divided Korean Peninsula won him the Nobel Peace Prize, was marked by the rival Koreas’ first top level talks in nearly two years.
Kim, who died on Tuesday aged 85, was a driving force in South Korea’s shift to democracy and initiated the “Sunshine Policy” to try to coax the North out of its shell, leading in 2000 to the first ever summit of the two Korean leaders.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sent a delegation to the South for the mourning of the former president and, with them, a message to the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose 18 months in office have seen a sharp deterioration in relations.
The delegation, headed by a top aide to Kim Jong-il, met Lee in the latest sign the impoverished North is softening its tone after a nuclear test in May and missile launches were met with tightened UN sanctions and further international isolation.
Yonhap news agency quoted a senior presidential Blue House official as saying the meeting was a new beginning, but “it’s too early to expect a thaw in inter-Korean relations.”
The meeting lasted about 30 minutes. The Blue House would not disclose the content of the message to Lee.
The reclusive North, furious at Lee’s policy of ending aid until Pyongyang starts to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, has all but cut ties with its far wealthier neighbor.
“President Lee said if South and North Korea solve problems through dialogue and in a sincere manner, there is nothing we cannot resolve,” presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said. “[The North] expressed its gratitude for allowing the meeting and suggests both sides can cooperate and resolve [problems].”
North Korea’s KCNA news agency announced the meeting with Lee, but said only that the two had discussed “issues of developing relations between the North and South.”
The KCNA report was notable, however, for referring to Lee without any of the derisory labels it usually attaches to his name.
The delegation was the North’s first to the South in nearly two years. It flew home just before the state funeral.
Yonhap said about 20,000 mourners gathered by the National Assembly to mark the death of the man who was a towering figure in the fight to bring democracy to what is now Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Popularly referred to by his initials “DJ,” the former president spent much of his political life behind bars or under house arrest. He was once sentenced to death and the target of a number of assassination attempts.
“My husband underwent painful suffering to keep democracy during his lifetime ... he never gave in,” said his widow Lee Hee-ho, who partnered him in his fight against autocratic rule. “I sincerely ask you to keep a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness and to love peace and neighbors in difficulty. This is my husband’s message.”