Update at 1915 KST: This article has been updated multiple times to include details of the handover from the Blue House and South Korean officials. It also has a new headline and photos.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday sent a personal message of condolence to mark the recent death of former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho, the presidential Blue House announced.
The DPRK leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong — who also serves as a senior official in the country’s ruling party — delivered the letter and a wreath at 1700 local time at Tongilgak on the northern part of the Panmunjom peace village.
The meeting represented the first contact between officials from the two Koreas since a February meeting between directors at the joint liaison office in Kaesong.
North Korea informed Southern counterparts of its plans earlier in the day through the inter-Korean channel at that office, it continued.
Lee Hee-ho, the widow of the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and a noted political and social activist in her own right, passed away Monday night at the age of 96.
The North Korean side on Wednesday “expressed its intention to convey condolence message and flowers under the name of chairman of State Affairs Commission Kim Jong Un,” the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced earlier on Wednesday.
Pyongyang also asked Seoul to send a delegation of senior officials to meet Kim Yo Jong for the handover at Panmunjom.
South Korea sent director of the presidential National Security Office (NSO) Chung Eui-yong and Vice Minister of Unification Suh Ho to the meeting, which lasted for fifteen minutes.
Lawmaker Park Jie-won — who serves as vice chief director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Center — also attended in his capacity as a representative of the funeral committee.
So, too, did Presidential Secretary for State Affairs Yun Kun-young, photos of the meeting reveal, though his name did not appear in the list of officials provided by the unification ministry.
Kim Yo Jong was accompanied by head of a department at the United Front Department (UFD) Ri Hyon.
Speaking at a press conference at Panmunjom following the handover, director Chung told media that he had held a brief conversation with Kim Yo Jong.
“I hope that inter-Korean cooperation will continue honoring the wish of Mrs. Lee Hee-ho who had endeavored towards national reconciliation and cooperation,” Chung quoted Kim Yo Jong as having said.
Seoul did not use the meeting to send a letter to Kim Jong Un, he added.
Lawmaker Park then told press he had expressed his regret that the North had not decided to send a delegation to the South for the former first lady’s funeral.
Kim, in response, promised to convey that message to the North Korean leader.
At a separate briefing following the talks, Presidential Senior Secretary for Public Relations Yoon Do-han confirmed that the meeting had been held between 1700 and 1715 local time.
“Chairman Kim Jong Un had a special affection for Mrs. Lee Hee-ho,” Yoon quoted Kim Yo Jong as having said, saying it was for this reason that her brother had asked her to deliver Pyongyang’s condolences.
“I hope the bereaved family will overcome their grief and honor the wishes of President Kim Dae-jung and Mrs. Lee He-hoo,” Yoon quoted Kim as having said, while stressing that he was paraphrasing and that those were not her exact words.
Seoul informed the North of Lee’s death through the inter-Korean joint liaison office on Tuesday morning at the request of the funeral committee, the MOU confirmed yesterday.
She first visited in June 2000, when she accompanied her husband to Pyongyang for the first inter-Korean summit.
She then toured the Mount Kumgang resort in August 2007, ahead of the second inter-Korean summit held the following month.
Following DPRK leader Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, she served as a part of a delegation to the North, where she met Kim Jong Un for the first time.
Lee also visited the North in August 2015 on the invitation of the North Korea leader, though she did not meet Kim during that trip.
That visit saw her spend four days in the country, in which she visited the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, Okryu Children’s Hospital, and other sites.
“I thought that we should not pass on the pain of division to the next generation while visiting those orphanages in Pyongyang and holding the hands of bright young children,” Lee told reporters after her visit, calling on South Koreans to “make a history of unity in reconciliation, cooperation, love, and peace.”
Pyongyang has in the past sent special delegations to offer condolences when important economic and political figures in the South have passed away — delegations that have often served as an impetus for broader inter-Korean diplomacy.
A day after former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung passed away on August 18 in 2009, the North sent a condolence message in the name of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il informing Seoul that it would send a delegation.
That six-member group included then-secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Kim Ki Nam and now-deceased director of the UFD at the WPK Central Committee Kim Yang Gon.
Won Tong Yon and Maeng Kyong Il from the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC) were also part of the delegation, which saw the first inter-Korean ministerial-level meetings take place.
Kim Yang Gon that week met with South Korean unification minister Hyun In-taek, in which he said that “inter-Korean relations should be improved immediately.”
Kim Ki Nam, Kim Yang Gon, and Won Tong Yon also met with President Lee Myung-bak and verbally delivered a message from Kim Jong Il.
Despite this, Seoul has this week refrained from speculating over whether a similar visit will take place in the wake of the former first lady’s passing, which comes amid a months-long impasse in inter-Korean dialogue.
Tuesday saw an MOU official say it would be “inappropriate for the authorities to prejudge the possibility of the delegation’s visit at this point.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification
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