NK envoys for better ties with SK
SEOUL: North Korean envoys sent to mourn former South Korean leader Kim Dae-Jung called Saturday for an improvement in inter-Korean ties during the highest-level talks between the neighbours in nearly two years.
They also asked for a meeting with conservative President Lee Myung-Bak, Yonhap news agency said, because they were carrying a message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il that they wanted to convey.
Relations between the two Koreas, who never signed a peace deal following the 1950-53 Korean War, worsened sharply after Lee came to power last year and pledged to take a firmer line with Kim and his isolated communist regime.
"While meeting many South Koreans here, I came to believe that inter-Korean ties must be improved at the earliest possible date," said Kim Yang-Gon, the North's official in charge of inter-Korean ties, according to pooled reports.
"We've had little opportunity to talk... I hope that these first high-level official talks under the Lee Myung-Bak administration will provide a chance to have frank talks," he told South Korea's Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek.
The six-member delegation was originally in Seoul only to mourn the death of former president Kim Dae-Jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize after he held the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.
It was originally scheduled to leave at 2 pm (0700 GMT) Saturday, one day before Kim's state funeral.
However, amid recently improving ties with Seoul and its ally the United States, South Korean officials and the delegation held 90 minutes of talks on Saturday.
Hyun was talking to the president's office about the request to meet Lee, Yonhap quoted an unidentified official as saying. The envoys have extended their stay by one day, Hyun's ministry confirmed.
Hyun was holding a private dinner meeting with the North Koreans Saturday evening at their Grand Hilton hotel. His ministry said they would discuss "practical issues".
The rare encounters Saturday and possible meeting with Lee have raised hopes for better ties after more than a year of tension, worsened by the North's nuclear and missile tests in early summer.
The visitors called for the resumption of regular talks and economic exchanges, said Chung Dong-Young, a former South Korean unification minister.
"Times have changed. Legacies from the Cold War must be buried... I'll meet with everyone for frank talks," Chung quoted the North's chief envoy, Kim Ki-Nam, as saying.
Asked about Kim Jong-Il's health after reports of a stroke last year, envoy Kim reportedly said the leader was well enough to make more of his trademark inspection tours this year than he was last year.
Former minister Chung, who had breakfast with Kim Ki-Nam, urged the Seoul government to seize the opportunity to mend ties in tribute to Kim Dae-Jung, who died Tuesday aged 85.
"Even after his death, President Kim Dae-Jung is laying a bridge over troubled inter-Korean ties," Chung said. "I hope the South Korean government can use this opportunity to mend the South-North relationship."
Kim Dae-Jung pioneered South Korea's "Sunshine" aid and engagement policy with the North, which improved relations but failed to curb its drive for nuclear weapons.
The United States is pushing for tough enforcement of United Nations sanctions designed to shut down the North's nuclear and missile programmes. The North has responded angrily.
But after they arrived Friday in Seoul the North Koreans said they were open to dialogue as part of an apparent recent charm offensive.
Earlier this month, former US president Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and secured the release of two US journalists sentenced to 12 years' hard labour for straying across the border from China.
The North also on Monday announced its willingness to restart tourist trips and family reunions for South Koreans. It said also that, as of Friday, it was lifting tough restrictions on border crossings imposed last December.
Diplomats from the North's United Nations mission held talks this week with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.