By Ju-min Park
North and South Korea agreed on Saturday to resume reconciliation talks after the North sent its most senior delegation ever to its estranged neighbour at just 24 hours’ notice.
The delegation, formally sent to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, comprised Hwang Pyong So, a senior military aide and confidant to North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un; another close adviser, and a senior official in the ruling Workers’ Party and veteran of talks with the South.
The team were given a demonstratively warm welcome by South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae – the main policymaker on inter-Korean affairs – and President Park Geun-hye’s national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin.
Park has been pushing for a resumption of high-level dialogue, stalled since February, to ease bilateral tensions, and the North agreed that senior officials would meet sometime between late October and early November.
No reason was given for the 12-hour visit, but the change in tone was striking after months of near daily-invective from state media directed at the South, and at Park in particular.
The North’s leader is known as a sports enthusiast who wants to make his country a “sporting superpower”, however, and the Asian Games may have provided an opportune cue.
“The Asian Games have been a significant event that showcased the nation’s glory and strength to the world,” Workers’ Party official Kim Yang Gon said at one of the meetings. “It was an enormous joy and pride for the nation as both the North and the South performed well.”
The two Koreas are technically at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.
There have been sporadic armed clashes in recent years, notably in 2010, when the North bombed a Southern island, killing civilians, and a South Korean warship was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 46 sailors.
Seoul blamed Pyongyang and cut off political and commercial ties with the North.
Those attacks, along with the North’s nuclear weapons programme and human rights abuses, ended a period of rapid detente from 2000 onwards under the South’s “Sunshine Policy”.
Hopes of a peaceful resolution have repeatedly been dashed, with the North reneging on deals, walking out on talks and threatening to punish its neighbour with a “sea of fire”.
South Korea says the North must abandon its nuclear arms programme, but few believe the North will ever surrender the security that it provides to both country and government.
Despite the tensions with the South, North Korea has been on a high-profile diplomatic outreach in recent weeks, with its foreign minister making visits to capitals and attending the U.N. General Assembly.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman, Lim Byeong-cheol, said Pyongyang hoped the visit “becomes a positive occasion for improved ties between the South and the North”.
The North is subject to U.N. sanctions for carrying out nuclear weapons and missile tests, but has expressed willingness to return to talks with key world powers, including the United States and China, on its nuclear programme.
Hwang is the head of the North Korean army’s General Political Bureau, a powerful body loyal to the supreme leader.
“He is (Kim Jong Un’s) personal representative here,” said Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership.
Last week Hwang took on the added title of vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, the supreme military council that Kim Jong Un himself heads, sealing his status as one of the most powerful men in Pyongyang’s leadership circle.
Choe Ryong Hae has also been in the close circle of aides around Kim, and currently heads an agency promoting sports in North Korea.
Kim Jong Un himself has been absent from public view since Sept. 3, fuelling speculation that he may be in bad health, something that the North’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva denied.
“With the Kim Jong Un health rumours lurking in the background, we have a pretty clear message that Hwang has Kim’s proxy (authority), not just on political management or military affairs, but on foreign policy and foreign relations,” Madden said.