SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea’s presumptive No. 2 and other members of Pyongyang’s inner circle made a surprise trip today to South Korea for the close of the Asian Games, Seoul officials said, a visit that will include the rivals’ highest-level face-to-face talks in five years.
After months of tensions, expectations for any breakthrough will be low, but even the visit itself is significant, allowing a valuable meeting between confidants of North Korea’s authoritarian leader and Seoul’s senior official for North Korean affairs.
The North Korean delegation to the games in Incheon was led by Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer at the Korean People’s Army and considered by outside analysts to be the country’s second most important official after leader Kim Jong Un.
The visit comes as rumors swirl in the South about Kim’s health. He has made no public appearances since Sept. 3 and skipped a high-profile event he usually attends.
A recent official documentary showed footage from August of him limping and overweight and mentioned his “discomfort.”
Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters that the North Korean officials plan to hold talks over lunch with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and national security director Kim Kwan-jin before flying back home later today.
It was the first senior visit since conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office in early 2013.
The last such visit was in 2009. It wasn’t clear what the officials would talk about. Lim said there were no immediate plans for the North Koreans to meet with Park.
High-level North Korean visits to South Korea have been highly unusual since inter-Korean relations became strained after Park’s conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a tough line on the North.
Besides the recent North Korean test firings of rockets and missiles, both sides have leveled harsh criticism at each other, with North Korean state media calling the South Korean president a prostitute.
The Asian Games participation by the North was welcomed as a step forward.
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