Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 4 News List

North Korea’s No. 2 visits South Korea for rare talks


South Korea’s national security advisor Kim Kwan-jin, left, shakes hands with Hwang Pyong-so, second right, director of the North Korean military’s General Political Bureau, during a lunch meeting in Incheon, west of Seoul, yesterday.

Photo: AFP

North Korea’s No. 2 led members of Pyongyang’s inner circle on a rare trip to South Korea yesterday for the close of the Asian Games, with the rivals holding their highest-level face-to-face talks in five years.

After months of tensions, including a steady stream of insults between the divided neighbors and an unusual number of North Korean missile and rocket test firings, expectations for a breakthrough were not high, but even the visit itself was significant, allowing valuable contact between confidants of North Korea’s authoritarian leader and Seoul’s senior official for North Korean affairs.

One analyst called it a “golden opportunity” for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to test North Korea’s willingness, at the highest levels, to improve shaky ties, but it seemed unlikely that Park would meet with the aides to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The North Korean delegation to the Games in the South Korean port city of Incheon was led by Hwang Pyong-so, the top political officer for the Korean People’s Army and considered by outside analysts to be the country’s second-most important official after Kim. Hwang is also a vice chairman of the North Korean National Defense Commission led by Kim and a vice marshal of the army.

The visit comes amid rumors in Seoul about the health of Kim, who has made no public appearances since Sept. 3 and skipped a recent high-profile event he usually attends. A recent official documentary showed footage from August of him limping and overweight, and mentioned his “discomfort.”

It was not immediately clear what Hwang and his delegation talked about in a closed-door lunch meeting with South Korean Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae and South Korean National Security Director Kim Kwan-jin.

Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol told reporters that there were no plans for the North Koreans to meet with Park.

That could be a mistake, a US analyst in Seoul said.

This visit of “a very high-octane group” offers Park a unique chance “to test the North Korean leadership’s will and intentions,” said John Delury, an Asia specialist at Seoul’s Yonsei University.

“Historically, North-South breakthroughs start from the top down, and if Park is serious that she wants to improve relations and jumpstart the reunification process, this is a golden opportunity,” he said.

Both sides expressed hope for better relations in comments to the media ahead of the talks.

The success at the Asian Games for both Koreas, which were in the top 10 for gold medals, is a source of pride for all Koreans, said one of the North Korean officials, Kim Yang-gon, a secretary in the ruling Workers’ Party and senior official responsible for South Korean affairs, according to the YTN TV network.

Choe Ryong-hae, another Workers’ Party secretary and chairman of the North Korean State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, also attended.

High-level North Korean visits to South Korea have been scarce since inter-Korean relations became strained after former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a tough line on the North. Attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.

The last such senior visit south was in 2009, when high-ranking Workers’ Party official Kim Ki-nam and spy chief Kim Yang-gon, the same official who visited yesterday, came to pay their respects to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. The North Koreans met Lee, conveyed a message from then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and discussed inter-Korean cooperation.

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