Dec. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un got his first chance to play the role of North Korean statesman as a former first lady from the South and the chairwoman of Hyundai Group visited to pay their condolences over the death of Kim Jong Il.
Lee Hee Ho, the 89-year-old widow of former President Kim Dae Jung, and Hyundai’s Hyun Jeong Eun led a private group of 18 South Koreans to Pyongyang yesterday as the North’s media extended its adulation of Kim Jong Un, thought to be younger than 30 years old. The group made a 10-minute stop at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Jong Il’s body is lying in state, and met the new leader, said Park Soo Jin, a spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul.
The ruling party named Kim as head of its central committee, just a week after his father’s death on Dec. 17, adding to the official Korean Central News Agency’s recent references to him as “supreme leader of the revolutionary armed forces” and “great successor” to his late father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
“The visit will work as lubricant, but it won’t be a catalyst for an immediate change,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “There’s a long way to go for North and South Korea.”
Meeting with the former first lady may help create an image, both at home and abroad, of Kim Jong Un as a leader who already has a South Korea policy, said Baek Seung Joo, a North Korea specialist at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul.
No government officials from Seoul will pay condolences, according to the Unification Ministry, which oversees policy toward North Korea. Known for making repeated threats against its southern neighbor, North Korea warned on Dec. 25 of “unpredictable catastrophic consequences” after the government in Seoul restricted condolences.
South Korea, which prohibits its citizens from traveling to the North except to the jointly run Gaeseong industrial complex, gave special permission for Lee and Hyun.
Private individuals and groups, also banned by South Korean law from praising the North Korean regime, may send condolences via mail or fax.
Lee and Hyun stayed at the Baekhwawon State Guest House in Pyongyang, accommodation used previously by Kim Dae Jung and his successor, the late Roh Moo Hyun, the Unification Ministry said.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang said Lee and Hyun expressed “deep condolences and sympathy” to Kim Jong Un, and that he gave them his thanks. Lee wrote in a condolence book of her desire for the early reunification of the divided peninsula while Hyun said the late leader had sought “reconciliation and cooperation” and would always be remembered, according to a statement from KCNA.
Neither the North Korean news agency nor the Unification Ministry indicated what else may have been said.
“Kim Jong Un’s top priority is internal unity and other issues that are heavily domestic,” said Kim Heung Kwang, who heads NK Intellectual Solidarity, a Seoul-based organization founded by defectors from the North. “The group aren’t current politicians in South Korea and there’s no reason for Kim to start tackling foreign policy.”
A flurry of official statements hailing the young leader over the past week also indicates that he may be given the highest formal roles in the country more quickly than was his father, who waited three years for the titles following the death of Kim Il Sung, said Paik Hak Soon, director of North Korean studies at the Seongnam, South Korea-based Sejong Institute.
The group will return home today, a day before Kim Jong Il’s funeral tomorrow. They traveled by land and crossed the border about 8:30 a.m. yesterday near the village of Panmunjom, where a cease-fire that ended fighting in the Korean War was signed in 1953.
--With assistance from Seonjin Cha in Seoul. Editors: Brett Miller, Nicholas Wadhams
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