October 06, 2014 09:32
The surprise visit of senior North Korean officials on Saturday has raised hopes of drastic improvements in cross-border relations.
The delegation was led by Hwang Pyong-so, a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, and included Workers Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon, the head of the United Front Department.
All are believed to be close to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. They arrived at just 24 hours' notice in Incheon on Saturday to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games.
The government on Sunday said North Korea did not make any major offers, but the meeting had all the elements of a precursor to a summit.
The North Koreans met with presidential security adviser Kim Kwan-jin and Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on Sunday and agreed to resume contact between high-ranking officials from both sides late this month or in early November.
The South suggested the officials meet with President Park Geun-hye, but they declined, insisting that the purpose of their visit this time was merely to attend the closing ceremony. The Unification Ministry said the North Koreans did not deliver any message from Kim.
Park has said she is willing to meet with the North Korean leader but is not interested in talks for talks' sake. In other words, she will meet Kim when the North is ready to make concessions over its nuclear weapons and other inter-Korean points of contention.
One security official said the visit could be interpreted as a "signal" for change. "Progress in inter-Korean ties has raised the chances of a summit," the official said.
The North announced the visit only a day earlier. Kim Yang-gon personally thanked South Korean officials for agreeing at such short notice, while a Cheong Wa Dae official admitted the government was surprised by the visit. Both Seoul and Pyongyang made the announcement at 9 a.m. on Saturday, just an hour before the North Koreans arrived.
A government official said the request was passed on by sports officials, an unprecedented move. "This demonstrates just how suddenly the North made the decision," he added.
The government here was slightly flustered deciding on a venue and itinerary for meetings with the North Korean officials.
The North Koreans declined South Korea's offer to stay for dinner and headed straight for Incheon International Airport. The government gave them gifts of red ginseng.
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