SEOUL, South Korea – A high-level North Korean delegation conveyed a message from leader Kim Jong Il to the South Korean president during a rare meeting Sunday in the latest sign of warming ties on the tense Korean peninsula.
President Lee Myung-bak and three North Korean officials discussed inter-Korean cooperation during the half-hour meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Lee spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said. He said the message from Kim Jong Il, conveyed verbally, addressed "progress on South-North Korean cooperation" but refused to provide further details.
The Blue House meeting — the first since Lee took office about 18 months ago — took place just hours before the funeral of Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000 for a historic Korean summit.
The late Kim, a longtime dissident-turned-president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reach out to the communist North with his "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation, died Tuesday at the age of 85.
The two Koreas remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in 1953 in a truce, not a peace treaty. Tanks and troops still guard the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone dividing the two sides.
Kim Dae-jung, who served as president from 1998 to 2003, advocated engaging the isolated, nuclear-armed North, and sought to ease reconciliation by plying the impoverished nation with aid. At their breakthrough 2000 meeting, he and Kim Jong Il agreed on a series of reconciliation projects that saw a flowering of relations between the rivals.
But ties have been tense since President Lee, a conservative, abandoned the Sunshine Policy when he took office in February 2008 and conditioned aid to North Korea's commitment on nuclear disarmament.
Pyongyang, in response, abandoned the reconciliation talks and most of the inter-Korean projects. The North also has been locked in an international standoff with the U.S. and other nations over its atomic ambitions after launching a rocket, test-firing missiles and conducting an underground nuclear test.
However, there have been signs of an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent days. After welcoming former U.S. President Bill Clinton during his mission to secure the release of two jailed American reporters, the North freed a South Korean citizen held for four months.
The North still has custody of four South Korean fishermen whose boat strayed into northern waters, but announced it would allow the resumption of some joint projects suspended in the past year and the reunion of families separate during the Korean War.
Kim Dae-jung's death prompted condolences from the North Korean leader, who dispatched the high-level delegation of six to pay their respects — the first time the North has sent officials to mourn a former South Korean president.
The delegation, led by senior Workers' Party official Kim Ki Nam and spy chief Kim Yang Gon, arrived Friday and went straight to the mourning site at the National Assembly. They bowed before the late leader's portrait, burned incense and shook his sons' hands.
North Korea has sent a high-level condolence delegation only once before — for the 2001 funeral of Chung Ju-yung, founder of South Korea's Hyundai Group, which funded the first inter-Korean joint projects.
Kim's state funeral began Sunday afternoon at the National Assembly. The North Korea delegation flew back to Pyongyang before the funeral.
"Thank you! Thank you! We're heading back in a positive mood," Kim Ki Nam told reporters as the delegation departed downtown Seoul to catch their flight to Pyongyang.
At the Blue House meeting, the North Korean delegation explained Kim Jong Il's thoughts on "progress on inter-Korean cooperation," Lee's spokesman said. The spokesman said he could not provide an exact quote of Kim Jong Il's message because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Lee, in response, detailed his government's "consistent and firm" policy on North Korea, and asked them to convey his comments to Kim, the spokesman said. The South Korean president also reiterated the need for "sincere" dialogue.
The North Korean delegation replied they wished the two Koreas would cooperate and resolve all pending issues, he said.
However, in a reminder of the tensions, North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned in an editorial Sunday of "merciless, immediate" strikes if provoked by South Korea and the United States, which are holding joint military exercise in the South.
Washington and Seoul call the drills routine exercises. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea.