SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea is sending a presidential envoy to North Korea next week to discuss improving relations, the rival nations said Monday, moving to resume dialogue and ease tensions in one of the world's most militarized regions.
The joint statement marks a resumption of the reconciliation process on the Korean peninsula, which stalled last year after President Bush focused criticism toward the North's communist regime, drawing an angry response.
Lim Dong-won, a special adviser to President Kim Dae-jung for diplomacy and national security, will visit North Korea in the first week of April, said Park Sun-sook, a chief presidential spokeswoman. Officials said the trip should produce a turning point in inter-Korean relations.
In a report carried by its foreign news outlet, Korean Central News Agency, North Korea confirmed Lim's scheduled visit and said the two sides will discuss "the grave situation facing the nation and issues of mutual concern related to the inter-Korean ties."
The Koreas share the world's most heavily armed border. About 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Hostility and suspicion marked the interchange between the two nations for decades, but relations warmed after a summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2000. Kim Dae-jung won that year's Nobel Peace Prize for his effort to reconcile with the North.
After taking office last year, Bush criticized North Korea's leadershipn leader. The North responded angrily and relations with both the United States and South Korea suffered.
In January, relations dipped again when Bush said North Korea was part of "an axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq, accusing them of trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
During a visit to South Korea in February, Bush said his view of North Korea had not changed but he offered to start talks aimed at resolving the communist country's alleged development of nuclear weapons. North Korea rejected the offer.
South Korean President Kim expressed disappointment at the rejection, but said that his country should do its best to help mediate between the two sides. He said that inter-Korean ties were closely related to progress in U.S.-North Korea relations.
The United States welcomed the announcement.
"That's encouraging, real encouraging," said Secretary of State Colin Powell as he stepped off Air Force One just after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base Sunday night. Powell accompanied President Bush on a four-day tour of Latin America.
"The United States welcomes and supports dialogue between South and North Korea," said State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowitz in Washington.
Lim served as the government intelligence chief and unification minister before taking the presidential advisory job. He was instrumental in arranging the first-ever inter-Korean summit.
YTN, a news cable network, said North Korea is likely to reciprocate Lim's visit by sending its own envoy to Seoul to attend the opening ceremony and march of the upcoming soccer World Cup in Seoul on May 31.
The presidential spokeswoman refused to confirm the report, saying that "what has been agreed on now is Mr. Lim's visit."
The local JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said the inter-Korean agreement was reached after a series of secret talks between the two governments.