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(5th LD) N. Korean delegation lays wreath at Kim's altar

All Headlines 19:15 August 21, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES with chief delegate's remarks to vice minister, local mourners' welcome, REPLACES quote on Lee meeting)
By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Yonhap) -- A high-level North Korean delegation honored late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung on Friday, the beginning of a two-day trip offering a rare chance for inter-Korean dialogue after months of tension.

After arriving by special plane, the six-member team placed a wreath on a memorial altar set up at the National Assembly as some South Korean mourners cheered and applauded, with some shouting, "Unification!" The wreath carried a message saying, "In memory of late President Kim Dae-jung," and bore the name of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The officials bowed their heads in silence and shook hands with each member of Kim's bereaved family and aides.

"Commemorating President Kim Dae-jung, who followed justice and conscience to leave an indelible legacy to the Korean people," Kim Ki-nam, a Workers' Party secretary and chief delegate, wrote in the guestbook.

The trip marks the first visit by North Korean officials to the South during the 18 months of the conservative Lee Myung-bak government.

Kim Dae-jung, who died from complications of pneumonia Tuesday, held the historic first inter-Korean summit with the North Korean leader in 2000. His sunshine policy facilitated broad social exchanges and aid to develop the North's dilapidated economy, moves that were rolled back by Lee.

North Korean media called the delegation a "special envoy group" sent by Kim Jong-il and promptly reported their movements in Seoul. The group includes Kim Yang-gon, head of the party's unification front department and a key figure in inter-Korean relations.

The North Koreans said they are open to dialogue. Their decision to stay overnight in Seoul has raised speculation of a possible meeting with Lee.

"I'll meet with everybody. Let's meet to talk," the party secretary was quoted as telling Seoul's Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho, who received the delegation at the airport.

The secretary also said in a meeting with National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-ho, "We have many things to do to improve inter-Korean relations."

A senior official at the presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, said Lee has no plan to meet the North Koreans "as of now."

Specifics of their itinerary, including where they will stay and whom they are scheduled to meet until their departure Saturday afternoon, were not disclosed as Seoul has imposed strict restrictions on media access for "security reasons."

In another conciliatory move, North Korea lifted restrictions on South Korean workers traveling to a joint industrial park in its border town of Kaesong and reopened an inter-Korean railway linked to the park. It also reconnected a direct communications channel operated by the Red Cross at the truce village of Panmunjom Friday morning, Seoul officials said. The restrictions were imposed late last year to protest Seoul's hardline policy, straining output at the business park that hosts more than 100 South Korean firms operating with about 40,000 North Korean workers.

About 100 protesters, mostly from right-wing groups, rallied at the airport, demanding an apology for Pyongyang's detention of South Koreans. Four South Korean fishermen have been detained since late July after their boat strayed into North Korean waters.

"Apologize immediately!" read a placard brought by one of the activists, Choi Sung-yong, at the airport. No clashes were reported.

About 100 police officers were dispatched to a hotel in northern Seoul, where the delegation was staying.

Pyongyang has recently changed course from months of provocative behavior marked by a long-range rocket and nuclear tests. The U.N. Security Council froze assets of several North Korean officials and entities for their alleged connection to nuclear and missile programs.

The change in attitude showed during visits to Pyongyang by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korea's Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun earlier this month, each of whom had hours of talks with the reclusive North Korean leader and won the release of detained citizens.

In the United States this week, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson urged the Barack Obama administration to begin dialogue with Pyongyang.

"Kim Jong-il, you know, he looks like he's turning over power to one of his sons, so possibly there is the potential for a change. We don't know that, but my point is it's best to talk to them and not to isolate them. Isolating them has not helped," Richardson, who has a long history of negotiations with Pyongyang, told the Fox News Channel after a meeting with North Korean diplomats.

In the meeting with the Hyundai chief, Kim agreed to "energize" inter-Korean projects, a promise that appears to be now implemented. Hyundai is a major investor in the North, with US$1.2 billion spent on its joint projects.

Meanwhile, South Korea proposed inter-Korean talks to set up family reunions that have been suspended for nearly two years.


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