North Korea's Kim Jong Il Calls for Better Relations With South Korea

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 24, 2009

TOKYO, Aug. 23 -- A North Korean delegation met Sunday in Seoul with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and delivered a personal call for improved ties from leader Kim Jong Il, the first high-level meeting between the countries in nearly two years.

The North Koreans had come to pay respects to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who died last week and whose efforts to unite the Korean Peninsula won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Kim Dae-jung, who was tortured and imprisoned during his decades as an opposition leader, was a passionate advocate of Korean unification and participated in a summit with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000. Tens of thousands of mourners gathered outside parliament Sunday afternoon for his state funeral.

The atmospherics of the 30-minute meeting, which a spokesman described as "very serious and gentle," suggested that North Korea is retreating from a campaign of insults, threats and saber-rattling that it launched when Lee assumed the presidency 18 months ago.

"Simply put, we can say that there has been a paradigm shift," an official from Lee's office told Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.

That shift, with multiple indicators in recent weeks, has tamed the bellicose dynamics of an eight-month stretch of provocations by North Korea, which tested a nuclear bomb, launched missiles and repeatedly declared its readiness for "all-out war."

For reasons that are not well understood, the North embarked this month on something of a charm offensive. It has released two U.S. journalists, freed a South Korean worker, agreed to resume reunions of families divided by the North-South border and promised to restart cross-border businesses.

North Korean diplomats also sought a meeting last week with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who said the isolated country is "now prepared to have a dialogue with us."

At the meeting with Lee, the North Korean delegation conveyed its leader's wishes for progress in relations with South Korea, said Lee Dong-kwan, a spokesman for Lee.

In response, Lee called for a resumption of dialogue between the two countries and told the North Koreans that there is no issue that the two sides cannot resolve if they talk with sincerity, the spokesman said.

The senior member of the North Korean delegation at the meeting was Kim Ki Nam, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party and a key aide to Kim Jong Il.

When Lee came into office in early 2007, he infuriated North Korea by changing a decade-old policy of unconditional aid that had begun under Kim Dae-jung as part of his "sunshine policy" for reducing North-South tension.

The South had provided North Korea with massive gifts of food and fertilizer, while asking no questions about where the aid went or who benefited from it.

Lee has insisted that he would resume the aid program, which amounts to about 5 percent of the North's gross domestic product, only if deliveries could be monitored. There are widespread reports that earlier aid was diverted to the military and sold by elites in the government.

A possible reason for North Korea's new flexibility in relations with South Korea is lack of food. The North suffers from chronic food shortages, and U.N. food agencies have said that about 37 percent of the country's 23.5 million people will need aid this year.

Food-supply problems may have increased in recent weeks, as North Korean state television has reported that flooding damaged crops.

Earlier this year, the North severely restricted the ability of U.N. agencies to distribute food in the country.

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