North delegation may mourn Lee

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North delegation may mourn Lee

Speculation is abounding over whether North Korea will send a delegation to Seoul to mourn the death of Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who broke the ice after half a century of tension on the Korean Peninsula.

As chair of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Center, Lee carried on her husband’s legacy of promoting inter-Korean relations since former President Kim died in August 2009. Her passing comes as inter-Korean relations are once again at a standstill following the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit last February. The possibility that the North will dispatch an official mourning delegation to Seoul is building anticipation for a resumption of dialogue between the two Koreas.

When the North’s six-member delegation, headed by Kim Ki-nam, then-vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party, arrived in Seoul in 2009 for former President Kim’s funeral, they met with then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for a brief moment of rapprochement at a time when inter-Korean relations were icy.

Former first lady Lee reciprocated the North’s gesture two years later when she visited the North in December 2011 to pay respects at the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Along with Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun, she became the first South Korean figure to meet with current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after he succeeded his father as ruler.

In the following years, under the South’s conservative administrations, inter-Korean relations took a turn for the worse. Yet even amid the tension, Lee accepted a request from Kim Jong-un to visit the North once more in August 2015 at the age of 93.

During her second visit, Lee visited orphanages and childcare centers in Pyongyang and delivered fur hats and medicine for children in the North on behalf of the humanitarian organization she set up. However, at that time she was unable to meet with Kim Jong-un. Months after the visit, on the 15th anniversary of former President Kim Dae-jung receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Lee appealed for reconciliation between the Koreas, saying she hoped for a return to the days when the two sides could exchange dialogue and visits.

On Tuesday, Blue House National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong said the North received word of Lee’s passing, implying Pyongyang could be preparing to send a delegation to Seoul. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it had yet to receive word of such plans, but added that should the North dispatch a delegation, it could follow the precedent set during former President Kim’s funeral in 2009.

Lee’s funeral is scheduled for Friday, and Saturday is the 19th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, when Kim Dae-jung met Kim Jong-il for the first historic meeting between the two countries’ heads of state.

Experts say that while the North’s dispatch of a delegation to pay respect to Lee may be an opportunity to warm diplomatic ties between the two Koreas, Pyongyang could stop at sending a message of condolence, which could indicate its unwillingness to talk unless Seoul breaks with the United States’ position on denuclearization negotiations.

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