Widow of former South Korea president in visit to North

Lee Hee-ho, wife of the late Kim Dae-jung, arrives for four-day visit aimed at improving ties after Kim Jong-un invite.

Lee Hee-ho to North Korea
Relations between the Koreas were shaken last year after the opening of UN office in Seoul to monitor human rights in the North [Reuters]

Lee Hee-ho, the widow of the former president of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung, has arrived in Pyongyang where her trip will include visits to a maternity clinic, an orphanage and a children’s hospital.

There are hopes among both sides that Wednesday’s visit might ease the 70-year long tensions between the two countries and serve as stepping-stone to possible cooperation in the future.

North Korea President Kim Jong-un had extended an invitation to the former First Lady after sending her condolence flowers on the third year of the anniversary of the death of his father.

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Roger Cavazos, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel and expert on North Korea, told Al Jazeera that Madam Lee Hee-ho’s visit is unlikely to lead to a significant improvement in relations, but it is also unlikely to derail anything either.

It is common practice in countries like DPRK for a foreign VIP to meet people below the Supreme Leader. 

“In meetings with the others, the VIP is expected to provide almost all the details of what might be discussed with the Supreme Leader. 

“The Supreme Leader will only decide to meet if he is sure there is a deliverable such as a summit or a new dialog process or some large aid package that he deems acceptable,” Cavazos said.

“While the ROK administration is not saying it will change the way it deals with North Korea, the DPRK should be able to see that ROK is willing to listen and has at least plausibly discussed outlines of changes to the ROK-DPRK dynamic that would be acceptable to the US, Japan, China and Russia. 

“All parties will say ‘ball is in someone else’s court’ or that some other party now has to take the responsibility to change the relationship.”

Tensions between the Koreas worsened last year following the opening of a UN office in Seoul to monitor human rights in North Korea, and Pyonyang’s refusal to release several South Korean citizens detained there.

Kim Sung-jae, a former South Korean culture minister who is part of Lee’s delegation to North Korea, said that Lee hopes that her visit will pave the way for more dialogue, exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.

It is not known, however, whether Lee will pay a visit to any top Korean officials, including the leader Kim Jong-un, before her return to Seoul on Sunday.

The sunshine politician

Kim Dae-jung, Lee’s late husband, was known for his “sunshine policy” towards North Korea during his five-year mandate, between 1998 and 2003.

In a spirit of friendliness and dialogue, the former president, who died in 2009, hoped to lay the foundations for collaboration between the two countries, which have been in ongoing conflict since 1950.

In 2000, he held a landmark inter-Korean summit, involving talks with Kim Jong-un’s father, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, which at the time enabled many family members who had been separated for more than 40 years to meet.

In the same year, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

When asked about the inter-Korean summit in 2000, Cavazos said the meetings involved a type of opening and non-hostility toward the DPRK.

“In hindsight, we can understand that North Korea’s desires for a summit in 2000 largely stemmed from some serious internal contradictions in the DPRK system. 

“Kim Jong-il seems to have assessed that a sudden influx of ROK aid could ameliorate the contradictions and provide some breathing space but the aid did not fundamentally resolve contradictions in the system,” Cavazos added.

The cooperation, however, was put on hold in 2008 when conservatives took power in Seoul and ended big aid shipments to North Korea.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies