N. Korean Delegation Meets With President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul

TOKYO, Aug. 23 -- In another signal that relations between the two Koreas are on the mend, 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.

It was the first high-level meeting between the countries in nearly two years and the atmospherics of the 30-minute session, 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, of which there have been multiple signs in recent weeks, has tamed the bellicose dynamics of what had been an eight-month stretch of almost non-stop provocations by North Korea, which had tested a nuclear bomb, launched missiles and repeatedly declared its readiness for "all-out war."

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

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

The North Korean delegation that visited Lee on Sunday had come to Seoul 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.

Tens of thousands of mourners gathered outside parliament Sunday afternoon for his state funeral. Kim, who was tortured and imprisonment 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.

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

In response, President 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 Sunday's meeting was Kim Ki Nam, secretary of the Workers' Party and a key aid 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 began 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 only resume the aid program -- which amounts to about 5 percent of the North's gross domestic product -- 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 inside the country.


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