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Korea: Kim Dae-jung's funeral may spark North-South reconciliation

As tens of thousands gather in Seoul to mourn the death of the former president, his 'Sunshine policy' is breathing life into fresh North-South talks.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 2009

Lee Hee-ho (3rd l.), widow of the late former President Kim Dae-jung, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (c.) and his wife Kim Yoon-ok (r.) pay tribute during his funeral in Seoul on Sunday.

Ahn Young-joon/Reuters


The state funeral Sunday for Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who initiated his country's "Sunshine policy" vis-a-vis North Korea, is opening a new chapter in the search for North-South reconciliation.

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While tens of thousands of mourners flocked to the service in front of Seoul's domed National Assembly building, President Lee Myung-bak received a six-member delegation representing North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, whom Kim Dae-jung met for the historic first North-South summit in Pyongyang in June 2000.

Kim Jong-il's message, however, was described by a spokesman for Mr. Lee as "oral," not written, and touched only on "progress of inter-Korean cooperation." That comment indicated that Kim Jong-il did not mention the nuclear and missile programs that led the United Nations Security Council after North Korea's May 25 nuclear test to invoke sanctions banning trade in critical items that North Korea badly needs.

"North Korea's peace gesture has nothing to do with its intention to give up nuclear weapons," says Kim Tae-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "That is entirely separate."

North Korea signaling new openness toward the South

North Korea, in a downward economic spiral of severe food shortages and economic deterioration, has indicated its eagerness to ease up on access to the economic complex at Kaesong (across the North-South line 40 miles north of Seoul), reopen tours to the ancient city of Kaesong, resume reunions of families divided by the Korean War, and possibly come to terms on resuming tours to Mount Kumkang.

Kim Jong-il, believed to have suffered a stroke a year ago and to be building up his youngest son as a possible successor, has made Kim Dae-jung's Aug. 18 death the basis for the latest in a series of moves toward easing rising tensions.

Kim Jong-il immediately sent a condolence message to Kim Dae-jung's widow, Lee Hee-ho, who was at her husband's bedside when he died. Kim Ki-nam, a secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party, leading the delegation to Seoul, said he was "leaving with good feelings" after calling on Lee for half an hour at the Blue House, the center of power in South Korea.

A Blue House spokesman refrained, however, from revealing the exact contents of the message from the North Korean to the South Korean leader in view of what he said was its "sensitivity." There was even speculation that Kim Jong-il may have invited Lee for a summit in Pyongyang similar to the June 2000 summit and the summit in October 2007 with Kim Dae-jung's successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

A sign of desperation?