Lee Hee-ho, DJ’s widow, starts planning a trip to Pyongyang

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Lee Hee-ho, DJ’s widow, starts planning a trip to Pyongyang

Lee Hee-ho, widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, is planning a trip to visit North Korea, fueling speculation that frozen inter-Korean relations may see a thaw.

“Lee’s aides informed us that they want to contact North Korea to discuss her trip and we granted it,” said Lim Byeong-cheol, spokesman of the Ministry of Unification.

It remains to be seen if the 92-year-old former first lady will be able to meet with Kim Jong-un, the ruler of the reclusive Communist regime. Lee met Kim in 2011 when she visited Pyongyang to express condolences over the death of Kim Jong-il, father of the young ruler.

The Kim Dae-Jung Peace Center said it has started arranging the trip by contacting the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee via fax. The specific itinerary, size of her entourage and travel routes will be discussed and a formal application will be filed to the ministry later to obtain Seoul’s formal permission, which is required for any trip to the North.

The North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee is headed by Kim Yang-gon, secretary of the Workers’ Party and director of the United Front Department. Kim, a key South Korean policymaker, visited the South last month as a member of a delegation visiting the Asian Games in Incheon.

“When Kim Dae-jung’s aides visited the North in August to receive Kim Jong-un’s wreath to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the death of the former president, Kim Yang-gun received the visitors,” said a Seoul official. “At the time, he stressed that Pyongyang’s invitation for Lee was still valid.”

During a recent meeting with President Park Geun-hye, Lee spoke about her wish to visit the North. Park had replied that she will look for a convenient opportunity.

“Since Park has already spoken positively about Lee’s request, there won’t be a big obstacle in approving her trip unless there is a serious snag,” said a Unification Ministry official.

If Lee’s trip is realized, it will send a signal to Pyongyang about Seoul’s reconciliatory efforts for allowing the travel despite the frozen inter-Korean relations. The South Korean government’s economic sanctions on the North remained unchanged, while the two Koreas’ pledge to hold a high-level government dialogue recently fell through over South Korean civic groups’ sending of anti-North leaflets.

While hopes exist for a possible meeting between Lee and the North Korean leader, analysts said Pyongyang’s situation is possibly too complicated for it to take place. Although the North sent its delegation to the South last month, it also staged a series of armed provocations and ratcheted up its rhetoric against the South over recent weeks.

North Korea experts also pointed to a possible precedent from June 2006, when the late president’s plan to visit Pyongyang was scrapped.

“The North refused proposals that Kim would visit using a railway or by car,” said Jeong Se-hyun, the former minister of unification who was in charge of the negotiation eight years ago. “They demanded that Kim should use an airplane.”

BY SER MYO-JA, LEE YOUNG-JONG [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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