North Korea said yesterday that leader Kim Jong-il had sent condolences on the death of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, the latest sign of a possible defrosting of relations between the two rivals.
Kim Dae-jung died on Tuesday at the age of 85. An extraordinary figure in South Korea’s shift to democracy, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for a June 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il and efforts at reconciliation with the North.
“Though he passed away to our regret, the feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation,” North Korea’s KCNA news agency quoted the message as saying.
A close aide to Dae-jung, Park Ji-won, told reporters the North wanted to send a five-strong delegation to the South to pay its respects. He said it might arrive ahead of the funeral, which is expected to be held in about a week in Seoul.
Analysts said Kim Dae-jung’s death could provide an opportunity to improve ties between the Koreas, which have soured since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took power about 18 months ago and angered the North by cutting off a steady flow of aid it had seen since the 2000 summit.
“There’s no doubt a softer atmosphere has been created but the North Koreans will put on stern faces if anyone tries to engage them in political talk at the funeral because they will say their visit is not related to the North-South political reality,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Analysts said the North’s rare acts of conciliation may signal that it has stopped its recent round of provocations that included a May nuclear test as it looks for aid to prop up its economy that has been hit with UN sanctions for its actions.
In related news, New Mexico Governor and former UN envoy Bill Richardson was scheduled to meet two North Korean diplomats yesterday, his office said, amid signs of a thaw in US-North Korean relations following a visit to Pyongyang by former US president Bill Clinton.
Kim Myong-gil, a North Korean delegate to the UN, requested the meeting, which will take place for “most of the day” at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Richardson spokeswoman Alarie Ray-Garcia said.
The North Korean diplomat was to attend the talks with a deputy.
Ray-Garcia did not rule out that the talks could cover Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But she stressed that “the governor will not be negotiating with them in any way and is not representing the Obama administration.”
The meeting comes after Clinton briefed Obama on Tuesday on his talks with Kim Jong-il earlier this month during a quick visit to Pyongyang to secure the release of two detained US journalists.
Richardson, who traveled twice to North Korea in the 1990s to secure the release of US prisoners, has met with diplomats from North Korea’s UN mission before — in 2004 and 2006 — in Santa Fe, Ray-Garcia said.
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