N Korean officials in rare visit to South

Trip by Kim Jong-un's top aides comes as speculation mounts about his health after he is not seen in public for a month.

    North Korean Hwang Pyong-so (left) is believed to be the country's second-in-command [AFP]
    North Korean Hwang Pyong-so (left) is believed to be the country's second-in-command [AFP]

    Three senior North Korean officials visited South Korea on a rare trip to attend the Asian Games closing ceremony, in what could potentially bring a breakthrough in ties between the rival Koreas.

    The visit comes amid speculation that the country's leader Kim Jong-un, who has not been seen in public since September 3, may be in poor health.

    But North Korea's ambassador to the UN in Geneva denied the claims, calling the reports "fabricated rumours".

    Hwang Pyong-so headed the delegation, which arrived at Incheon airport in full military uniform on Saturday. Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon, senior aides to Kim, travelled with him.

    "With these senior figures [visiting], you have to fill in the blanks," Alex Jensen, a journalist and analyst on Korean affairs, told Al Jazeera.

    The North Korean delegation
    • Hwang Pyong-so: Head of the North Korean army's General Political Bureau, a powerful apparatus loyal to the leader, and is also the vice chairman of the supreme military council headed by Kim Jong-un. Is said to be one of the most powerful men in Pyongyang's leadership circle.
    • Choe Ryong-hae: In the close circle of aides around Kim and currently heads the country's agency promoting sports.
    • Kim Yang-gon: A senior ruling Workers' Party official who has for years worked on ties with South Korea.

    "You see two people who have held number two in the country. It's as big as it gets without having Kim Jong-un here."

    The rivals held their highest level face-to-face talks in five years, and agreed to meet again to resume talks in the coming weeks.

    Reuters news agency reported earlier that they were scheduled to meet South Korean government officials including Seoul's unification minister and also the top national security adviser, and that they appeared upbeat before the meetings.

    They are also to meet the North's athletes at the games and attend the closing ceremony late on Saturday before flying home later in the evening.

    South Korea generally welcomed the North Koreans' visit and it immediately raised hopes among some analysts that it would lead to a thawing of relations that have been in deep freeze for more than four years.

    "The government hopes that the high-level delegation's attendance at the Asian Games closing ceremony becomes a positive occasion for improved ties between the South and the North," unification ministry spokesman, Lim Byeong-cheol, said.

    Limping Kim

    State-controlled media showed a limping Kim during a July ceremony, and last week again aired footage of him limping. There have also been long-running rumours that a coup had taken place in the country.

    The two Koreas are technically at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. Armed confrontations in recent years have killed soldiers on both sides, and in 2010 a number of civilians were killed when the North bombed a Southern island.

    The North has been under UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests, which deepened its international isolation but it has expressed willingness to return to talks with key world powers including the United States and China.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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