NORTH Korea’s presumptive second-in-command and other members of Pyongyang’s inner circle met South Korean officials yesterday in the rivals’ highest level face-to-face talks in five years, a possible indication both sides are keen to pursue better ties after months of raised tensions.
There appeared to be no major breakthrough from the meeting that came as the North’s delegation made a surprise visit to the close of the Asian Games in the South Korean port city of Incheon.
But the countries agreed to hold another round of talks later this month, according to a South Korean statement. The specific topics of yesterday’s discussions were not immediately known.
However, the fact that North Koreans at the highest levels visited the South was significant, allowing valuable contact between confidants of North Korea’s authoritarian leader and senior South Korean officials after a year that has seen the divided neighbours trade a stream of insults and a high number of North Korean missile and rocket test firings.
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 with her government.
The South Korean statement said Park had been willing to meet with the Pyongyang officials, but the North Koreans were running out of time because they had to attend last night’s Asian Games’ closing ceremony.
South Korea said its prime minister, largely a figurehead but technically holding the No 2 position, was to meet with the delegation later yesterday.
The North Korean delegation 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 North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
Hwang is also a vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission led by Kim and a vice-marshal of the army.
Hwang and his delegation earlier had a closed-door lunchtime meeting with South Korean unification minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and national security director Kim Kwan-jin.
The visit comes amid rumours in Seoul about the health of Kim Jong-un, who has made no public appearances since 3 September and skipped a high-profile recent event he usually attends.
A recent official documentary showed footage from August of a limping, overweight Kim limping and mentioned he had been feeling some physical “discomfort”.
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 jump-start the reunification process, this is a golden opportunity.”
Both sides expressed hope for better relations in comments to the media ahead of the private meeting.
It was a source of pride for all Koreans that the Asian Games were successful for both countries, which were in the top ten for gold medals, 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 television network.
Choe Ryong-hae, another Workers’ Party secretary and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, also attended.
High-level North Korean visits to the South have been scarce since inter-Korean relations became strained after Park’s conservative predecessor, 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 to the 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 the late liberal South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. The North Koreans met Lee, conveyed a message from then-leader Kim Jong-il and discussed inter-Korean co-operation.
Senior officials from the rival Koreas – at a lower-level than those who met yesterday – gathered at a border village in February for talks that dealt with key inter-Korean issues such as South Korea-US military drills and the resumption of reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. In August, South Korea proposed another round of talks about family reunions.
The next round of talks will follow up on yesterday’s discussions and the issues discussed in February, South Korean officials said.
If no progress follows yesterday’s meeting, the rivals’ strained relations will probably continue until Park, who took office in early 2013, finishes her single five-year term, said Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute. The visit could also be part of an effort to show that Kim is alive and well and still in charge, he said.
Besides the North test firings of about 100 rockets and missiles this year, both sides have pilloried each other, with the North’s state media dubbing the South Korean president a prostitute.