22 August 2009

S Korean minister meets Northern envoy

By Park Chan-Kyong
August 22, 2009

(SMH) -North Korean envoys sent to attend the funeral of former South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung have called for an immediate improvement in inter-Korean ties and talks with the country's president, media pool reports say.

"The North Koreans said they were carrying a message from (North Korea's leader) Chairman Kim Jong-il," an unidentified government official was quoted as telling Yonhap news agency on Saturday.

Their wish to meet with President Lee Myung-bak was conveyed to South Korea's Unification Minister Hyun In-taek on Saturday. Hyun was talking to the president's office about the offer, the official said.

"While meeting many South Koreans here, I came to believe that inter-Korean ties must be improved at the earliest possible date," Kim Yang-gon, a North Korean official in charge of inter-Korean ties, told Hyun.

"We've had little opportunity to talk ... I hope that these first high-level official talks under the (South Korean conservative president) Lee Myung-bak administration will provide a chance to have frank talks," he said.

Kim is one of a six-member North Korean delegation making a rare visit south of the border to pay tribute to former leader Kim Dae-jung, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85.

A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim Dae-jung held the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, during his 1998-2003 presidency.

After the 90-minute talks, Hyun said the North Koreans might postpone their departure for home, sparking speculation that they will meet Lee.

The rare encounter raised hopes for a breakthrough amid tension on the Korean peninsula that rose after the North's second nuclear test three months ago.

Chung Dong-young, a former unification minister, urged the government to seize the opportunity to mend inter-Korean ties, which have soured since conservative President Lee took power in February 2008.

"Even after his death, President Kim Dae-jung is laying a bridge over troubled inter-Korean ties," Chung said. "I hope the South Korean government can use this opportunity to mend the South-North relationship."

Kim Dae-jung pioneered South Korea's "Sunshine" aid and engagement policy with the North, which improved relations but failed to curb the North's drive for nuclear weapons.

Cross-border and regional tensions rose sharply in recent months after the North made a series of threats, fired missiles and staged a second nuclear test, incurring tougher United Nations sanctions.

After they arrived in Seoul on Friday the North Koreans said they were open to dialogue.

"I will meet with everybody. Let's meet to talk," delegation leader Kim Ki-nam, a secretary of the ruling communist party, said after arriving at Gimpo airport.

The North's first dispatch of envoys to Seoul in nearly two years is the latest in a series of peace initiatives by Pyongyang.

Earlier this month former US president Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang to plead for the release of two US journalists who were sentenced to 12 years' hard labour for straying across the border from China.

The North's leader, Kim Jong-il, pardoned the two American journalists and Pyongyang later freed a detained South Korean.