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Opinion: Ex-first lady’s visit to North Korea

July 8, 2015
Ex-first lady of South Korea Lee Hee-ho (Yonhap)

Ex-first lady of South Korea Lee Hee-ho (Yonhap)

Lee Hee-ho, the 92-year-old former first lady and widow of the late President Kim Dae-jung, will visit North Korea in August. As is widely known, her husband received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “sunshine policy” of engaging North Korea.

Lee’s visit, scheduled from Aug. 5 to 8, comes about 10 days prior to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent a personal letter to Lee last December inviting her to the North. These are reasons that despite innumerable prior let-downs, there is cautious optimism that Lee will pave the way for a new direction in inter-Korean relations.

North Korea said it will provide a plane if needed for Lee’s visit, meaning that she may be accompanied by a larger entourage than initially planned. She is expected to stay at the North’s state guest house, Baek Wha Won, an honor bestowed on her because her late husband held the historic 2000 inter-Korean summit with the then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Seoul has said that it will fully support Lee’s visit in any way it can. In that sense, we do not see why Lee could not serve as a special envoy for President Park Geun-hye, and carry either a letter or a verbal message to the current North Korean leader. We also urge Kim Jong-un to accept these communiques in a meeting with Lee.

Inter-Korean relations have not progressed; if anything, they have regressed despite Park and Kim raising expectations of a “big bang” in their relationship in their respective New Year’s messages. Since then, there have been “tit-for-tat” exchanges between the two over South Korea’s joint military exercises with the United States, the South’s longstanding May 24 sanctions, and the North’s nuclear and missile programs. A series of civilian exchanges, including the joint celebration of the 15th anniversary of the June 15 summit and the North’s participation in the Gwangju Universiade were cancelled.

President Park’s opposition to employing “secret” talks for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations may well have been a hindrance. The young leader in North Korea and his years of consolidating his power played a part too. But an “envoy” on the level of a former first lady provides sufficient justification for flexibility from both Seoul and Pyongyang for a new opening.

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