- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

SEOUL | South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed to meet a visiting high-level delegation from North Korea on Sunday in what is likely to be a test of his 18-month hard-line policy against the communist country.

Relations between the two Koreas have been largely frozen since Mr. Lee took office in February last year and amid international tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Mr. Lee has not held talks with North Korean officials since he became president.

The visit to Seoul by six North Korean officials to pay their respects following the death of former President Kim Dae-jung has provided a rare opportunity for dialogue. Mr. Kim was widely admired by Pyongyang for his efforts to reconcile the two Koreas when he served as president from 1998 to 2003.

Mr. Lee’s meeting with North Korea’s spy chief and five other officials will take place at the presidential Blue House, Chun Hae-sung, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said late Saturday. The ministry handles relations with the North.

North Korea regularly blasts Mr. Lee as a “traitor” and “human scum” and accuses South Korea of conniving with the United States to attack it with nuclear weapons. But Pyongyang has recently proffered a series of olive branches to Seoul in an apparently concerted effort to improve relations.

Pyongyang on Aug. 13 released a South Korean worker at a jointly operated industrial complex in North Korea who had been held for months. Days later the North also promised to hold more inter-Korean family reunions and restart suspended tours for South Koreans to the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il held talks with a leading South Korean businesswoman and expressed a willingness for better relations with Seoul. That came on the heels of his talks with former President Bill Clinton and the release of two American reporters who had been convicted of illegally entering the country.

Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute, a security think tank near Seoul, said Sunday’s meeting would help mend fences between the Koreas. “South Korea should not miss the last opportunity made by former President Kim Dae-jung’s death,” he said.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Mr. Lee was likely reluctant to show much eagerness to meet the North Koreans since it could invite a backlash from conservatives who oppose any indication of softness toward Pyongyang.

About 100 demonstrators chanted “topple the Kim Jong-il dictatorship” Saturday near the hotel where the North Korean officials were staying.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the North Koreans were expected to deliver a message from Kim Jong-il and outline Pyongyang’s plan to release four South Korean fishermen seized in July.

The North Koreans arrived in Seoul on Friday and immediately went to the National Assembly to pay respects at a memorial to Mr. Kim. They offered a floral wreath in the name of Kim Jong-il to the late president. The two leaders met at the first-ever inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in June 2000.

Kim Yang-gon, Pyongyang’s spy chief who also handles relations with South Korea, met for 80 minutes earlier Saturday with South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek. The meeting was the first such top-level encounter in almost two years. The two men met again Saturday evening for dinner.

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