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SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea's presumptive No. 2 led members of Pyongyang's inner circle on a rare trip Saturday to South Korea for the close of the Asian Games, with the rivals holding their highest level face-to-face talks in five years.
After months of tensions, including a steady stream of insults between the divided neighbors and an unusual number of North Korean missile and rocket test firings, expectations for a breakthrough weren't high, but even the visit itself was significant, allowing valuable contact between confidants of North Korea's authoritarian leader and Seoul's senior official for North Korean affairs.
One analyst called it a "golden opportunity" for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to test North Korea's willingness, at the highest levels, to improve shaky ties, but it seemed unlikely that Park would meet with the aides to North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
The North Korean delegation to the games in the South Korean port city of Incheon was led by Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People's Army and considered by outside analysts to be the country's second most important official after Kim. Hwang is also a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission led by Kim and a vice marshal of the army.
The visit comes amid rumors in Seoul 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."
It wasn't immediately clear what Hwang and his delegation talked about in a closed-door lunch meeting with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and national security director Kim Kwan-jin. Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters that there were no plans for the North Koreans to meet with President Park.
That could be a mistake, an American analyst in Seoul said. This visit of "a very high-octane group" offers Park a unique chance "to test the North Korean leadership's will and intentions," said John Delury, an Asia specialist at Seoul's Yonsei University.
"Historically, North-South breakthroughs start from the top down, and if Park is serious that she wants to improve relations and jumpstart the reunification process, this is a golden opportunity," he said.
Both sides expressed hope for better relations in comments to the media ahead of the talks.
The success at the Asian Games for both Koreas, which were in the top 10 for gold medals, is a source of pride for all Koreans, said one of the North Korean officials, Kim Yang Gon, a secretary in the ruling Workers' Party and senior official responsible for South Korean affairs, according to the YTN TV network. Choe Ryong Hae, another Workers' Party secretary and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, also attended.
High-level North Korean visits to South Korea have been scarce 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. Attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
The last such senior visit south was in 2009, when high-ranking Workers' Party official Kim Ki Nam and spy chief Kim Yang Gon, the same official who visited Saturday, came to pay their respects to the late liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. The North Koreans met President Lee, conveyed a message from then leader Kim Jong Il and discussed inter-Korean cooperation.
If no progress follows Saturday's meeting, the rivals' strained relations will likely continue until Park, who took office in early 2013, finishes her single five-year term, said 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.
Besides the North Korean test firings of about 100 rockets and missiles this year, both sides have leveled harsh criticism at each other, with North Korean state media calling the South Korean president a prostitute.
Word of the North's participation in the Asian Games 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.
The North Korean officials planned to fly back home later Saturday after the games' closing ceremonies.