Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, hoping to create momentum to enhance cross-border relations as the two countries mark the 70th anniversary this month of their liberation from Japan's colonial rule.
Her four-day trip to the communist state came as inter-Korean relations continued to deteriorate with the North sticking to its nuclear programme and the South raising pressure on it to renounce it and improve its woeful human rights record.
Upon her arrival at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, Lee, 93, was greeted by a series of senior North Korean officials including Maeng Kyong-il, vice chair of the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee handling inter-Korean affairs.
Maeng, who visited Seoul in 2009 to attend the funeral of the late former President Kim, is one of the key figures in the North who have dealt with cross-border relations, an indication that Pyongyang regards Lee's visit as an important state affair.
It was her third visit to the North following the first during the inter-Korean summit in 2000 and the second in 2011, during which she attended the funeral of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
She took a direct flight over the West Sea to Pyongyang, using South Korean low-cost carrier Eastar Jet. Her 18-member delegation included former Culture Minister Kim Sung-jae and Paik Nak-chung, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.
After taking a brief rest at the Baekhwawon Guesthouse in Pyongyang, Lee visited the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital and Okryu Children's Hospital, which are located in the capital city.
Before departing for the North, the former culture minister said that the trip was designed to deliver a "message of reconciliation and co-operation" -- the gist of the joint declaration signed during the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.
"She is going to Pyongyang, hoping that Koreans in both nations can love one another and peacefully move across the border, as they work together to heal the scars of the 70 years of national division, and reconcile and co-operate based on the spirit of the June 15 joint declaration," Kim told reporters at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul.
"Lee also expressed her expectations that her visit would open a path not only for her, but also for other Koreans to continue to communicate and co-operate with North Koreans, and exchange cross-border visits with them."
The Kim Dae-jung Peace Center, which organised Lee's trip, established direct telephone lines at the Baekhwawon Guesthouse in Pyongyang, where Lee will stay, and Mount Myohyang, north of the capital, so as to maintain close communication with Seoul's Unification Ministry, the centre said.
Her visit was pushed for after Kim offered a hand-written invitation to Lee late last year. The invitation was sent after she sent condolence flowers to him on the occasion of the third anniversary last December of the death of his father.