SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister paid a rare visit to the country’s militarized southern border to deliver a condolence message over the death of a former South Korean first lady who promoted unity between the rivals.
Kim Yo Jong extended the offering Wednesday to South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, at the Panmunjom truce village that straddles the border, a presidential spokesman in Seoul said. It was a gesture of appreciation for Lee Hee-ho, the wife of former President Kim Dae-jung, who died Monday at the age of 96.
Her funeral proceedings are continuing through Friday.
North Korea’s government has had a special relationship with Lee Hee-ho and Kim Dae-jung, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement to coax the reclusive state out of its shell. This resulted in him traveling to Pyongyang in 2000 with Lee for the first summit of the leaders of the two Koreas. He and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il shared hugs, held hands and sang traditional songs together.
The visit may quiet questions about the status of Kim Yo Jong after Kim Jong Un’s reshuffle of his inner circle after a failed summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in February. She was conspicuously absent from state media reports for weeks until attending a gymnastics and artistic performance with her brother this month.
Blue House spokesman Yoon Do-han said in a briefing Wednesday that Kim Yo Jong hoped the family of the former president and first lady could overcome their sadness and pursue their wishes of inter-Korean cooperation. She was in Panmunjom for about 15 minutes and Yoon didn’t mention further details of her conversation with the South Korean security official.
Part royal representative, part personal assistant, Kim Yo Jong was once one of her older brother’s closest aides. While she became the first member of the ruling family to visit Seoul and accompanied Kim Jong Un in his summits with Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, she’s also performed mundane tasks, such as helping the leader extinguish a cigarette during a train stop in China.
North Korea sent a delegation to Seoul for Kim Dae-Jung’s funeral in 2009 and the group had talks with then President Lee Myung-bak. The rare visit to the South Korean capital helped ease a thaw between the two Koreas, where there had been no high-level official talks in about two years.
The visit by Kim’s sister and contact between the Korean officials at Panmunjom Wednesday comes at a delicate time in relations.
North Korea has significantly reduced its dialogue and engagement with South Korea since February, when the high-stakes nuclear summit between Kim and Trump collapsed over disagreements on exchanging sanctions relief for disarmament. Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have also been at a standstill and Kim has declared that the Trump administration has until the end of the year to offer mutually acceptable terms for a deal to salvage the negotiations.
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