Ex-first lady’s N.K. visit raises hope for cross-border thaw
Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, will embark on a four-day trip to North Korea on Wednesday, amid high expectations that her visit would set the mood for a thaw in the frosty cross-border relations.
The 93-year-old widow of the former leader, noted for his efforts for inter-Korean reconciliation, will fly over the West Sea to Pyongyang via South Korean low-cost carrier Eastar Jet. Lee last visited the North in December 2011 to attend the funeral for former North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il.
Her itinerary includes a nursery, children’s hospital, maternity hospital in Pyongyang and Mount Myohyang, north of the capital. Her 19-member delegation includes former Culture Minister Kim Sung-jae and Paik Nak-chung, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.
Ex-first lady Lee Hee-ho (Yonhap)
No schedule has been set yet for her meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center, which organized her trip, thinks that she will likely meet Kim considering that he offered a handwritten invitation to her late last year after she sent condolence flowers to him on the occasion of the third anniversary of the death of his father.
Should she meet him, Lee is likely to deliver to Kim her wishes for improvement in the bilateral relationship that has been strained due to Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear arms and its provocative behavior, and Seoul’s hard-line response to them.
Lee has repeatedly expressed her hopes for addressing cross-border tensions during her recent meetings with high-profile politicians and government officials including Seoul’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it was not considering asking Lee to deliver its message to the North Korean side.
“Lee’s trip to the North is a personal one. Her trip itself is very meaningful, but we are not considering sending any special message to the North through Lee,” said the ministry’s deputy spokesperson Park Soo-jin told reporters.
Major political parties alike here expressed their hopes that her trip will help the two Koreas find a “breakthrough” in the deadlocked inter-Korean relations.
“We hope that her trip will serve as an opportunity to reignite the flames of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation,” said Kim Young-woo, spokesperson for the ruling Saenuri Party.
Kim Sung-soo, spokesperson for the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said the government should more actively utilize her trip to the North to address the inter-Korean stalemate, rather than discounting her trip only as a personal affair.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org