A high-level delegation of North Korean officials paid their respects Friday to late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, shaking his sons' hands and leaving a wreath at the National Assembly mourning site.
The visit is the first to Seoul by North Korean officials in nearly two years, and only the second time the regime has sent a delegation to South Korea for mourning rites. Dressed in black, they laid a wreath emblazoned with the name of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the altar for the former president.
Chief delegate Kim Ki Nam then burned incense, and the six-member delegation bowed before a large portrait of Kim Dae-jung before greeting his family.
The visit to mourn a man who devoted his presidency to building better relations with the communist North raised hopes of improved ties on the tense Korean peninsula. Kim died Tuesday at age 85.
The two Koreas officially remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Kim Dae-jung was respected on both sides of the border for his efforts to break down decades of postwar mistrust. His "Sunshine Policy" of reaching out to the impoverished North with aid — highlighted by a historic summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000 — won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
The North Koreans' closely watched trip may provide a valuable opportunity for dialogue between the two Koreas, whose relations have deteriorated since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, took office last year, abandoning the Sunshine Policy.
Lee has said North Korea must follow through on its commitments on nuclear disarmament before receiving aid.
It was not clear whether the delegation, which includes spy chief Kim Yang Gon, would hold talks with South Korean officials before returning home Saturday. Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung told reporters that no other itinerary for the North Koreans had been set.
North Korea has only dispatched a condolence delegation once before — a one-day trip in 2001 to mourn Chung Ju-yung, the founder of South Korea's Hyundai Group, which funded the first inter-Korean joint projects.
The visit is the latest conciliatory gesture by North Korea after months of tensions as it conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a barrage of missiles, earning international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.
After former President Bill Clinton went to North Korea on Aug. 4 to secure the release of jailed American reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling, holding talks during the visit with Kim Jong Il, the North released a South Korean whom it had held for four months.
It 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.
North Korean diplomats, meanwhile, met for a second day Thursday in the United States with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Richardson said they told him North Korea was ready to discuss its nuclear program with Washington. The regime abandoned six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament earlier this year. The governor described the discussions as "very positive."
China's chief North Korean nuclear negotiator, meanwhile, concluded a five-day visit to Pyongyang that included talks with his North Korean counterpart.
Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei met with Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, the North's representative to the six-nation nuclear talks, China's official Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report.
The two discussed "bilateral relations, regional situation and issues of mutual concern," the report said, without specifically mentioning the nuclear issue.
But in a reminder of the state of war in the Korean peninsula, a North Korean military official warned that his country is braced for conflict with the U.S. and South Korea.
North Korea will deal a "merciless and immediate" strike against any U.S. or South Korean provocation, the official Korean Central News Agency quoted the unidentified official as saying.
The North Korean military said earlier its army is on "special alert" because of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the South.
Seoul and Washington say the annual computer-simulated war games are purely defensive.
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