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(5th LD) S. Koreans meet Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, pay respect to Kim Jong-il

All Headlines 22:29 December 26, 2011

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, photo; UPDATES with delegation's meeting with Kim Jong-un; RESTRUCTURES)

DORASAN, South Korea, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- A former South Korean first lady and the chairwoman of Hyundai Group on Monday met with new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, where they paid respects to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the Unification Ministry here said.

Lee Hee-ho, the 90-year-old widow of late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun met with the junior Kim at 6:20 p.m. at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where the body of Kim Jong-il lies in state, a Unification Ministry official said. It marked Kim Jong-un's first meeting with South Koreans.

"The delegation visited the palace and expressed their condolences to Kim Jong-un," said the official, adding that Hyundai Asan, the inter-Korean business arm of Hyundai Group, provided him with the message.

Kim Jong-un expressed his gratitude for the South Koreans' visit, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency said. It said Lee wrote in the memorial guest book that she hoped the Koreas will quickly reunify, living up to the spirits of the joint Korean declaration from June 15, 2000. Former President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il held the first inter-Korean summit that year.

The KCNA also said Hyun in writing noted Kim Jong-il's efforts toward reconciliation.

Lee and Hyun reached the North Korean capital earlier Monday. They had a luncheon meeting with unidentified North Korean officials, according to the ministry.

Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, and his death was announced by the North two days later. Lee and Hyun's trip comes after a warning by North Korea that Seoul's attitude toward condolences could affect the future course of inter-Korean relations.

Before crossing the border, Lee said, through a written message, that she hoped the trip would "help improve relations between South and North Korea."

Choi Bo-sun, the Unification Ministry spokesman, also voiced his hope that the trip will lead to inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation.

It wasn't immediately clear if Lee or Hyun exchanged any particular messages with Kim Jong-un. Asked earlier Monday whether the two would deliver any message from Seoul, Lee's aide stressed that the trip would be purely for offering condolences.

Lee and Hyun are scheduled to return home Tuesday prior to a state funeral set for Wednesday. The North has said it will not accept foreign delegations at the state funeral.

Tensions still persist on the divided Korean Peninsula over the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year.

South Korea expressed sympathies to North Koreans over Kim's death and has allowed civilians and private organizations to send messages of condolence to the North.

However, Seoul decided not to expand civilian delegations beyond those of Lee and Hyun who both have ties with North Korea, though the North has said it will accept all condolence delegations from South Korea.

South Korea made the exception because North Korea sent separate condolence delegations to Seoul after the deaths of President Kim Dae-jung, Lee's late husband, and Chung Mong-hun, Hyun's late husband and former Hyundai Group chairman.

Kim Dae-jung held a landmark summit with Kim Jong-il in 2000 while Chung pushed joint venture economic projects with North Korea.

According to an aide for Lee, the former first lady and Hyundai chairwoman will spend the night at a North Korean guest house called Baekhwawon, a place usually reserved for state luminaries.

Choi Gyung-hwan, a spokesman for Lee, said the Unification Ministry informed him of the delegation's residence. Former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun both stayed at Baekhwawon during their trips to North Korea for inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, respectively. In 2002, then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also slept at Baekhwawon during his first summit with Kim Jong-il.

"That Mrs. Lee and her delegation are staying at Baekhwawon indicates North Korea has received them with a great deal of courtesy," Choi said.

Hyun previously stayed at Baekhwawon in November 2007, when she crossed the border for talks on tourism to Kaesong and Mt. Paekdu.

On Sunday, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea criticized the South Korean government for attempting to "quench the hot wind for consolatory visits."

"Their obstructions will entail unpredictable catastrophic consequences to the North-South relations," the committee said. "The nation will finally test the morality of the South Korean authorities as well as the sincerity of their call for improvement of the North-South relations."

In 1994, South Korea neither expressed condolences nor sent an official delegation over the death of the North's founder Kim Il-sung, the father of late leader Kim Jong-il.

The two Koreas are technically at war since their 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

entropy@yna.co.kr

jeeho@yna.co.kr
(END)

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