Confidant of North Korea's Kim Jong Il dies

Jo Myong Rok, a longtime confidant of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il who traveled to Washington in 2000 on a then unprecedented goodwill mission, has died. He was 82.

Jo — who served as first vice chairman of the North's powerful National Defense Commission — died Saturday of inveterate heart disease, the official Korean Central News Agency reported in a dispatch from Pyongyang.

"His death is a great loss to the party, the army and people of (North Korea) waging a dynamic struggle to win the victory of the cause of building a thriving socialist nation," it said.

Jo, a Korean War veteran, visited Washington in 2000 as Kim's special envoy and met with then President Bill Clinton. He also later pledged to then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that North Korea would take steps to fundamentally improve relations in the interests of peace and security.

The reconciliatory mood has since changed following tension between Pyongyang and Washington over the regime's nuclear weapons program and other issues.

Jo's body will lie in state at Pyongyang's Central Hall of Workers to receive mourners before a state funeral Wednesday, the dispatch said. Kim and his son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un are among the members of the funeral committee, it said.

The North's state media hasn't reported on Jo's public activities in several years, sparking intense South Korean media speculation about his health and a possible change in Pyongyang's power structure.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because their conflict in the early 1950s ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to deter aggression from North Korea.