SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea's presumptive No. 2 and other members of Pyongyang's inner circle made a surprise trip Saturday to South Korea for the close of the Asian Games, a visit that will include the rivals' highest level face-to-face talks in five years.
After months of tensions, including a barrage of insults between the divided neighbors and an unusual number of North Korean missile and rocket test firings, expectations for any breakthrough aren't high, but even the visit itself is significant, allowing a valuable meeting between confidants of North Korea's authoritarian leader and Seoul's senior official for North Korean affairs.
The North Korean delegation to the games in Incheon was led by Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer at the Korean People's Army and considered by outside analysts to be the country's second most important official after leader Kim Jong Un.
The visit comes as rumors swirl in the South about the health of Kim, who has made no public appearances since Sept. 3 and skipped a high-profile recent event he usually attends. A recent official documentary showed footage from August of him limping and overweight and mentioned his "discomfort."
Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters that the North Korean officials plan to hold talks over lunch with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and national security director Kim Kwan-jin before flying back home later Saturday.
It was the first senior visit of this kind to the South since conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office in early 2013. The last such trip was in 2009. It wasn't clear what the officials would talk about. Lim said there were no immediate plans for the North Koreans to meet with Park.
One South Korean analyst saw the talks as a crucial moment for inter-Korean ties over the next few years.
If no progress is made after Saturday's talks, the rivals' strained relations will likely continue until Park finishes her single five-year term, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute.
Cheong speculated that the North Korean officials were probably carrying a message from Kim Jong Un. The visit could also be part of an effort to show that Kim has no problem making high-profile political decisions and has no serious health issues, he said.
The other North Korean officials, Lim said, are Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Yang Gon, secretaries to the ruling Workers' Party. Hwang, the No. 2, holds other top posts, such as a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission led by Kim Jong Un and a vice marshal of the army.
High-level North Korean visits to South Korea have been highly unusual since inter-Korean relations became strained after Park's conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a tough line on the North.
In 2009, senior Workers' Party official Kim Ki Nam and spy chief Kim Yang Gon, the same official who visited Saturday, came to South Korea during a mourning period to pay their respects to the late liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. During the visit, the North Koreans met President Lee, conveyed a message from then leader Kim Jong Il and discussed inter-Korean cooperation.
Besides the recent North Korean test firings of rockets and missiles, both sides have leveled harsh criticism at each other, with North Korean state media calling the South Korean president a prostitute.
The Asian Games participation by the North was welcomed as a step forward.
North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, both in Seoul, but attended the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 University Games in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon. Those last three came during an era of liberal governments in Seoul that were more accommodating to Pyongyang.
North Korea had said ahead of these games that it wanted to send both athletes and cheerleaders but later balked at sending cheerleaders because of what it called South Korean hostility.