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(LEAD) S. Korea expresses sympathy to N. Korean people over Kim's death

All Headlines 17:45 December 20, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with details, background throughout)

SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea expressed sympathy to the people of North Korea over the death of leader Kim Jong-il, but decided not to send an official condolence delegation to the communist nation, an official said Tuesday.

The government will, however, allow the families of late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and late Hyundai Group chairman Chung Mong-hun to pay condolence visits to the North because Pyongyang sent delegations to Seoul when Kim and Chung died, Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said.

"Regarding the death of Chairman Kim Jong-il, the government conveys sympathy to the people of North Korea," Yu said while briefing reporters on the outcome of a security ministers' meeting that President Lee Myung-bak presided over to discuss the aftermath of Kim's death.

The expression of sympathy to the people of the North was a carefully chosen phrase aimed at reconciling conflicting demands from conservatives and liberals in South Korea over whether to offer condolences over the death of the leader of a nation South Korea is still technically at war with.

The wording is aimed at separating the North's leadership and its hunger-stricken population.

The government does not want to anger either side at a time when general elections are just months away.

The government will allow the families of late President Kim and late Hyundai chief Chung to visit the North for reciprocal condolence calls.

Kim held the first-ever inter-Korean summit with the late North Korean leader in 2000, and Chung pushed aggressively for joint economic projects with the impoverished North. Pyongyang sent condolence delegations to Seoul when Kim died in 2009 and Chung died in 2003.

Yu said that South Korea has been working closely with friends and allies to make sure that "peace on the Korean Peninsula is not shaken." The South's military is maintaining high vigilance and is prepared for all kinds of situations, he said.

"So far, no unusual signs whatsoever have been detected in North Korea," he said.

Yu also said that the government is asking religious groups to withdraw their plans to light Christmas tree towers on the border with North Korea. The request reflects concern that the lighting could provoke Pyongyang and spike tensions.

Later Tuesday, the defense ministry said religious groups accepted the government's request to keep the towers dark this year. A ministry official said Yoido Full Gospel Church and the Military Evangelical Association of Korea, which had organized the lighting ceremony, agreed not to light the Christmas towers, after the ministry verbally notified them of the government's stance. The ministry will send a written request later Tuesday or early Wednesday, the official added.

South Korea had planned to light three Christmas tree-shaped towers near the border Friday, a move that prompted North Korea to accuse Seoul of intensifying anti-communist psychological warfare. Pyongyang also warned of an "unpredictable situation" if the lighting were to go ahead.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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