South Korea peace seekers meet new leader of the North

A delegation led by two South Korean widows, both linked to the failed Sunshine policy of North-South reconciliation, met with North Korea's Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang Monday.

Lee Hee-ho, the wife of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (c.) arrives at Kaesong, North Korea, Monday. Lee is part of an 18-person group allowed by South Korea to attend the Dec. 28 funeral of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The widow of a former South Korean president invoked memories of the brightest moment in North-South relations Monday as she visited the bier in Pyongyang of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

Mr. Kim's successor, Kim Jong-un, stood quietly by as 90-year-old Lee Hee-ho wrote that she hoped “the spirit of the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration” – signed by her late husband Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in June 2000 – “would be carried forward to achieved national reunification as soon as possible.”

Ms. Lee's visit was a poignant reminder of the hopes from that earlier summit and South Korea's failed Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North. That effort stalled as North Korea forged ahead with nuclear and missile programs. South Korea's current president, Lee Myung-bak, ended the Sunshine policy but allowed Lee to undertake today's trip.

The decision to permit her and another widow deeply involved in North Korea to lead condolence delegations to Pyongyang represents more of a special exception rather than a significant olive branch. The government denied permission for all other South Koreans, notably politicians critical of its hard-line policy.

But Lee and Hyun Jeong-un, widow of Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-hun whose company opened up special zones for business and tourism in North Korea, had personal and historical ties that could not be ignored. Lee's husband, who died in 2009, won the Nobel Peace Prize six months after the North-South summit. Mr. Chung committed suicide in 2003 after his indictment for passing enormous bribes to persuade Kim Jong-il to agree to the summit.

For Lee, the journey by road to Pyongyang marked her first visit to North Korea since she flew there with her husband for the summit. Her yearning for a return to her husband’s Sunshine policy is shared by many of her husband’s allies and followers, but she avoided bitterness before entering North Korea at the truce village of Panmunjom 40 miles north of here.

In a statement read by an aide, Lee said simply, "I hope that our trip to North Korea will help improve relations between South and North Korea.”

KCNA said the two widows inscribed their thoughts in a mourners’ book. Kim Jong-un thanked them – the first words that he’s been known to have uttered to visitors from South Korea.  Kim Jong-un was “standing vigil beside the bier with other members of the funeral committee,” according to KCNA, when wreaths were laid in their name “amid the playing of solemn music.”

Kim Jong-un was busy not only with preparations for the funeral on Wednesday but also with assuming the power held by his father for 17 years.

North Korea’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Monday called on North Korea’s armed forces “to protect Kim Jong eun as respected leader of the party’s central committee.” That’s the latest  sign of the build-up of Mr. Kim “as great successor” to his father, reported one week ago to have died of a massive heart attack on Dec. 17.

Kim Jong-un –  already hailed as “supreme commander” – is expected to rule behind a junta led by an uncle, Jang Song-thaek, husband of Kim Jong-il’s sister. An official photograph has shown the portly young Kim, his stomach protruding beneath a plain dark blue uniform, beside an uncle wearing a dress uniform displaying the stars of a high-ranking general as they bowed before his father’s coffin.

“Kim Jong-un will be focused on consolidating his power and the other key leaders in the country will be focused on not letting things fall apart,” says Bruce Bechtol, author of numerous studies of North Korean security issues, most recently Defiant Failed State. With “regime priority” North Korea’s “most important priority,” Bechtol estimates the new leader “stands only a 50-50 chance of being able to consolidate his power and rule the DPRK” – that is, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – though he believes “no one else has enough of a power base to take over.”

In a bid to to show the strength and continuity of the regime, North Korea is making a huge issue of condolences. The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea came out with a harsh attack Sunday on South Korean authorities for denying permission for other South Koreans to go to Pyongyang bearing condolences.

The committee warned that such “obstructions will entail unpredictable catastrophic consequences” and “test the morality of the South Korean authorities “ and the “sincerity of their call for improvement of the North-South relations."

None of the visitors to Pyongyang will attend the funeral itself.  Both Lee Hee-ho and Hyun Jeong-eun are returning to South Korea on Tuesday, one day before the funeral.

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