SEOUL, South Korea – Top South and North Korean officials in charge of inter-Korean relations held talks Saturday for the first time in nearly two years amid a series of conciliatory moves by North Korea after months of tensions on the divided peninsula.
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek met visiting North Korean spy chief Kim Yang Gon, who also handles inter-Korean matters, ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. She said the meeting lasted about 80 minutes, but had no further details.
The North Korean officials expressed a desire to meet President Lee Myung-bak — whom North Korean media regularly deride as a "traitor" — and were carrying a letter from leader Kim Jong Il, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.
Yonhap, which cited a source it did not identify, said Hyun was communicating with Lee's office about a meeting.
The president's office said only that senior officials were discussing the contents of the meeting between Hyun and North Korea's Kim.
Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said he had no information.
The North Koreans were scheduled to return home later Saturday, though the timing could be delayed, said Hyun. The delay fueled speculation that a meeting with Lee may occur.
Asked whether the delegation would deliver a letter from the North Korean leader, Hyun said he could not comment.
The last time officials responsible for inter-Korean affairs met was for several days from late November to early December of 2007 during the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
The talks came a day after Kim and five other senior North Koreans flew to Seoul to pay their respects to the late Kim Dae-jung, a former South Korean president beloved on both sides of the border for his pursuit of closer ties between the divided states.
Hyun told reporters after the meeting the two sides discussed various inter-Korean issues, but did not elaborate.
"After meeting with several people (in the South) I felt the imperative need for North-South relations to improve," Kim told Hyun during a brief photo session, Yonhap news agency reported.
"I hope for frank discussions given that the meeting is the first high-level meeting since this government," Kim said, referring to President Lee's administration.
The conservative, pro-American Lee took office in February 2008 vowing to take a tougher line on North Korea and tying aid to progress on its denuclearization.
On Friday, the black-clad North Koreans lit incense, bowed their heads and laid a floral wreath before a large portrait of the late Kim at a memorial site on the grounds of the National Assembly, where the funeral will be held. The delegation was the first Pyongyang ever sent to mourn a South Korean leader.
South Korea's Hyun expressed gratitude for the North Korean delegation.
Kim, who died Tuesday at age 85, was respected on both sides of the border for his efforts to forge detente with the North.
He reached out to South Korea's impoverished neighbor with aid — the main thrust of his "Sunshine Policy" that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 — and held a landmark summit with the North Korean leader Kim in 2000.
South Koreans continued to pay their respects to the late leader at his funeral site and special mourning sites in Seoul and elsewhere.
A special Mass was to be held Saturday night at Seoul's landmark Myeongdong Cathedral for Kim, who was Roman Catholic. A delegation led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will represent the U.S. at the funeral, the White House said. Her term partially coincided with Kim's presidency.
Other members of the delegation include Stephen Bosworth, Washington's special envoy for North Korean policy and who served as U.S. Ambassador to Seoul during part of Kim's presidency.
The meeting Saturday was the latest indication that North Korea wants to improve relations on the peninsula after months of tensions. The communist nation recently pulled out of nuclear negotiations, conducted an atomic test and test-fired a barrage of missiles, earning international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.
Earlier this month, the North released two detained U.S. reporters and a South Korean worker, but it continued to hold four South Korean fishermen whose boat was seized last month after it strayed into northern waters.
The North also agreed to allow the resumption of some joint North-South projects suspended amid tensions with Seoul, and said it would lift restrictions on cross-border traffic in place since December and resume cargo train service across the border.