North Korea envoys hold talks with South minister

North Korea envoys hold talks with South minister

Seoul: Senior North Korean officials visiting the South for the funeral of a former president met Seoul’s unification minister on Saturday, in the highest-level meeting between the rival states in nearly two years.

The nearly two-hour meeting ended with Yonhap news quoting South Korean minister Hyun In-taek as saying the Northern officials’ departure could be delayed. Local media said his comment hinted at North Korean officials meeting with the South’s president Lee Myung-bak later in the day.

The presidential house said it was unaware of any such meeting with the delegation sent by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, while the Unification Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

“There is a message just in holding the meeting," Hyun told reporters ahead of the talks.

But in an indication of the North’s anger at the South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s government, the group is set to leave on Saturday before the state funeral for former president Kim Dae-jung, awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the first summit between the leaders of the two Koreas.

Relations chilled after Lee took office last year and effectively ended Kim’s “Sunshine Policy" of engagement by cutting off a steady flow of unconditional aid to the North, calling on it to reduce security threats to the region if it wanted help.

Impoverished North Korea has all but severed ties with Lee’s government, which ended aid once equal to about 5% of the North’s estimated $17 billion yearly GDP.

The first dispatch of envoys to the South in nearly two years follows moves by the communist North this month to reduce tension after conducting a nuclear test in May, firing missiles and threatenin1g to attack its capitalist southern neighbour.

The North’s rare conciliatory step could mean it wants greater contact with the outside world after being hit with UN sanctions for its nuclear test.

The North Korean delegation is scheduled to leave later on Saturday.