Kim Dae-jung’s widow starts a 4-day North trip

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Kim Dae-jung’s widow starts a 4-day North trip

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Lee Hee-ho, widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, waves on Wednesday before leaving Seoul to visit Pyongyang. [NEWSIS]

Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, flew to Pyongyang on Wednesday for a four-day trip to North Korea, although expectations were low that her trip could produce a breakthrough to improve ties between two Koreas.

The 93-year-old Lee landed at the newly renovated Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang at around 11 a.m. Wednesday on a direct flight from Seoul along the Yellow Sea using an aircraft from budget airline Eastar Jet. It took only an hour for Lee to travel to Pyongyang.

Before her departure, Lee was quoted as saying, by Kim Sung-jae, director of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center, that the former first lady was “leaving for Pyongyang in the hope that the two Koreas could reach reconciliation and have their people freely travel to the North and South by healing the pains and wounds caused by the 70-year division based on the spirit of the June 15 Joint Declaration.”

The June 15 declaration was signed by her late husband and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at the first inter-Korea summit in Pyongyang in 2000, which eased tensions on the peninsula and kicked off a number of inter-Korean projects.

As the widow of Kim Dae-jung, who is treated with reverence by North Korea, Lee could be chosen by the North Korean leadership to signal a thaw in frozen inter-Korean relations.

Seoul and Pyongyang failed to agree on any joint commemorations of the upcoming Liberation Day, which falls on Aug. 15 and marks the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese occupation, the independence of Korea and the bifurcation of the peninsula.

The greatest question is whether Lee will have a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during her four-day stay. Lee briefly met the young leader in December 2011 when she visited Pyongyang to pay condolences on the death of former leader Kim Jong-il, the father of Jong-un. The conversation between the two was limited to condolences.

On the first day of her trip, Lee visited a maternity hospital and children’s hospital in Pyongyang, according to the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center, which organized her trip. Lee’s four-day itinerary is crowded with visits to childcare centers.

The South Korean government has repeatedly said that Lee would not convey any government message to the North Korean leadership because her trip is a private one. Critics of the Park Geun-hye government complained it was not making the best out of Lee’s visit. Lee did not have a meeting with the president in advance of the trip, but Minister of Unification Hong Yong-pyo met with Lee.

Even so, speculation continues that the former first lady could help Seoul and Pyongyang find some middle ground in resuming talks on issues such as holding reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Saenuri Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung said during a party meeting on Wednesday that he’d like to “pay deep respect to Lee for vising Pyongyang to mend ties between the North and South.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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