About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a condolence letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in Wednesday following the passing of his mother the previous day, Seoul’s Blue House said Thursday.
The letter was delivered through Panmunjom at the inter-Korean border on Wednesday, according to Blue House spokesperson Ko Min-jung, though she did not specify who from the North delivered it.
President Moon’s mother Kang Han-ok passed away in the southern city of Busan on Tuesday evening. A funeral mass was held there Thursday with Moon in attendance.
Kim Jong Un “expressed his deep sympathies honoring the memory of Madam Kang in the condolence letter over her passing, offering a consoling message to President Moon,” Ko said.
On Wednesday, Moon made his first public comments about his mother’s passing on his Facebook page, saying she declared she was “happy,” despite hardships in her life.
Kang was 92 years old, born in what is now North Korea’s east coast town of Hungnam near Hamhung. She and Moon’s father evacuated the city during the Korean war and settled near Busan, where Moon was born.
In his message on Wednesday, the South Korean president said his mother “missed her hometown to where she could never in her entire life return.”
Kang and her son, as well as others in Moon’s family, did, however, travel together just across the border to North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang in 2004 to attend a family reunion event, meeting Kang’s younger sister who had remained in the North during the war.
And while inter-Korean relations are currently at arguably their lowest point in the last couple of years, with Kim Jong Un announcing plans last week to unilaterally remove South Korean resort facilities at Mt. Kumgang, President Moon and Kim also have also exhibited close personal relations in their three summits.
The two leaders have not met since then, and a top North Korean official said last week that “the improvement of inter-Korean relations can only be achieved when the south Korean authorities put an end to the policy of depending on foreign forces” — referring to frequent demands for the removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula.
One expert said the solemn circumstances may, however, see the two sides at least temporarily return to more mutually respectful terms.
“The fact that Kim sent a condolence letter to President Moon seems to suggest that North Korea has no intention of driving inter-Korean relations to the extreme” despite the downturn in relations, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
“This tracks with state media rhetoric on South Korea, which has grown harsher since the Hanoi summit but is still restrained compared to the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations,” she added.
But she also said it “would be premature to jump into conclusions about what Kim’s condolences might bode for inter-Korean relations,” one reason being that the Blue House is not releasing details over who delivered the letter to the South at Panmunjom.
A Blue House official told media on Thursday that fellow official Yun Kun-young received the message at Panmunjom but that “we cannot reveal in detail how the message was delivered and through which channel,” according to Yonhap News Agency.
Earlier this year, a condolence letter from Kim Jong Un over the death of former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho, widow of the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, was delivered to Panmunjom under much different circumstances.
At the time in June, Kim’s personal letter along with a wreath were delivered by his younger sister and top official in the leadership Kim Yo Jong, received in a meeting before cameras by Blue House and Ministry of Unification officials from the South side.
The two occasions are thus likely to be compared regarding the level of official sent by the North to deliver the letter, if the official’s identity is revealed.
It will also be important to watch North Korean state media’s handling of Kim’s letter, analyst Lee said, suggesting coverage “[Thursday] afternoon or [Friday] morning could be a good indicator of the North’s future intentions vis-a-vis Seoul.”
“If domestically as well as externally oriented media outlets report on the leader’s condolence letter, it could signal that Pyongyang has not completely shut the door to engagement with South Korea,” she added.
“On the other hand, reporting via external media only, or no reporting at all, would likely suggest that Kim has no intention of improving inter-Korean ties at present.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Press Corps