Former S. Korean first lady to visit North next month

Former S. Korean first lady to visit North next month
A South Korean family member of the war dead wears a traditional costume as he stands in front of the national flag

SEOUL - The wife of late South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung will visit North Korea next month, his foundation said Monday, and possibly meet with leader Kim Jong-Un.

The Kim Dae-Jung Peace Centre in Seoul said the agreement on dates for the four-day visit by 93-year-old Lee Hee-Ho was reached following talks with officials in North Korea.

Lee has visited the North three times - the last occasion being to pay her respects following the death of former leader Kim Jong-Il in December 2011.

She is the widow of Kim Dae-Jung, who instituted the "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea that led to an historic summit with Kim Jong-Il in 2000.

It was not immediately clear if Lee would meet Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, who had initially extended Lee an invitation to visit last year, after she sent a wreath marking the third anniversary of his father's death.

The trip will ostensibly be a humanitarian one, with Lee planning to visit a children's hospital, a maternity home and an orphanage in Pyongyang.

But an audience with Kim Jong-Un would be significant, as the reclusive leader has yet to meet with any South Korean citizen since formally assuming power more than three years ago.

An official with the Kim Dae-Jung Peace Centre, said the North Korean side had relayed Kim Jong-Un's approval for Lee to fly directly from the South to the North.

Direct flights between the two countries, who remain technically at war, are extremely rare.

"We hope her visit will help South and North Korea improve relations," Yonhap news agency quoted the official, Kim Sung-Jae, as saying.

Seoul has already supported her trip as a positive step for cross-border exchanges.

"The government's position is that it will actively support her planned trip to North Korea," Jeong Joon-Hee, the spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry, told reporters.

Cross-border tensions have flared at regular intervals this year, with North Korea conducting a series of ballistic missile tests in anger at annual US-South Korean military exercises.

Most recently, Pyongyang was infuriated by the opening last month of a new UN office in Seoul to monitor North Korea's human rights record.

The North responded by boycotting the World University Games currently underway in the southern South Korea city of Gwangju.

Lee's visit will come just ahead of the 70th anniversary of the August 15, 1945 liberation of a single Korea from Japanese colonial rule.

Both sides have noted the opportunity for some sort of joint celebration, but no event has been confirmed as yet.

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