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Asia-pacific

North Korean delegation meets Seoul's unification minister

Video by Catherine NICHOLSON

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-08-22

A North Korean delegation in Seoul for the funeral of former leader Kim Dae-Jung has met with South Korea's unification minister, Hyun In-Taek (right), in the first bilateral meeting since 2008.

A North Korean delegation paying a rare visit to South Korea to mourn former president Kim Dae-Jung held breakthrough talks with a government minister on Saturday.

 

The meeting was the first since a conservative government came to power in Seoul in February last year and took a tougher line with the North, sparking bitter hostility from the communist state.

 

The high-level delegation met Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek on Saturday morning. 

 

The North's delegation is paying tribute to Kim Dae-Jung, who died Tuesday aged 85 and held the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000 during his 1998-2003 presidency. It was originally due to leave Saturday but reportedly requested a meeting with President Lee Myung-Bak after talks with Hyun.

 

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

 

Conservative President Lee Myung-Bak rolled back the policy and made economic aid conditional on nuclear disarmament.

 

Cross-border and regional tensions rose sharply in recent months after the North made threatening gestures to the South, fired a series of missiles and staged a second nuclear test which brought tougher United Nations sanctions.

 

As Washington worked to enforce the sanctions, Pyongyang attempted this month to mend fences both with the United States and US ally South Korea.

 

Kim Jong-Il pardoned two American journalists after former president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang. The North freed a detained South Korean and on Monday announced its willingness to restart tourist trips and family reunions for South Koreans.

 

Pyongyang also announced that, as of Friday, it was lifting tough restrictions on border crossings imposed last December as ties with Seoul went into deep freeze.

 

The six-strong North Korean team, including two senior officials, delivered a wreath from leader Kim and bowed their heads in mourning at an altar for Kim Dae-Jung outside parliament.

 

They were the first North Korean officials to pay tribute to a former South Korean president. The nations have remained technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict.

 

Dozens of protesters demonstrated at Gimpo airport, where the North Koreans landed, and at their heavily guarded Grand Hilton hotel, shouting "Down with Kim Jong-Il!" and burning his portrait and a North Korean flag.

 

The North Korean team was to leave Saturday before Sunday's funeral. Analysts said neither government wants to run the risk of anti-Pyongyang protests erupting at the ceremony.

 

In another indication of a softer line, diplomats from the North's United Nations mission held talks this week with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He said the North Koreans indicated they wanted fresh dialogue with the United States about the nuclear standoff, but they rejected a return to a six-nation nuclear disarmament forum which Pyongyang quit in April.

 

South Korean and US officials believe this year's bellicose moves were a show of strength by the ailing Kim Jong-Il, 67, as he tried to win support for a succession plan reportedly involving his youngest son.

 

Kim "is regaining his health and feeling more confident about the succession process and trying to avoid the consequences of sanctions with an olive branch to South Korea to get aid flowing again," said Peter Beck, a Korea expert at the American University in Washington.

 

South Korea previously shipped around 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser annually to its neighbour, which suffers serious food shortages, but the shipments ended under the conservative government.

Date created : 2009-08-22

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