Former South Korea first lady begins rare trip to North

Lee Hee Ho (centre) waves to the media at Gimpo airport prior to her departure for North Korea on Aug 5, 2015.
Lee Hee Ho (centre) waves to the media at Gimpo airport prior to her departure for North Korea on Aug 5, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - The widow of late South Korean president Kim Dae Jung arrived in North Korea on Wednesday, hoping the rare trip would help ease the perennial tensions that have stymied efforts at cross-border cooperation.

The August 5-8 visit by Lee Hee Ho is ostensibly humanitarian in nature but there has been much speculation about a possible meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who personally approved the trip.

"I hope that this will offer a window for more dialogue, exchange and cooperation," Lee was quoted as saying by her spokesman as she left Seoul on a direct flight to Pyongyang with an 18-member entourage.

"I am going to Pyongyang with hopes that Koreans can... heal the wounds and pain of the past 70 years of division," she said.

The two Koreas technically remain at war and direct flights between the two countries are extremely rare.

After arriving in Pyongyang, Lee visited hospitals caring for children and young mothers, the Kim Dae Jung Peace Centre in Seoul said.

Lee had visited the North three times before, the last trip being to pay respects during the funeral of Kim Jong Un's father, the late leader Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.

At the time, she briefly met with Kim Jong Un while he was receiving mourners.

Lee's husband is best remembered for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with the isolated but nuclear-armed North Korea that led to a historic summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000.

The policy was however largely abandoned when a conservative administration took power in 2008 and cross-border ties soured.

A series of nuclear and missile launches by the North in recent years as well as occasional military clashes have kept tensions on a high simmer.

Seoul has stressed that Lee's visit is a personal one and she is not carrying any official message from the South Korean government.

Her entourage includes no sitting South Korean official.

But some analysts say her trip and its sanctioning by Kim Jong Un may offer a window for resuming a dialogue on relatively non-political issues.

Almost all talks over major issues from Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal to the resumption of official South Korean aid for the North have been shelved for years.

The visit comes just ahead of the 70th anniversary of the August 15, 1945 liberation of the pre-division Korean peninsula from Japanese colonial rule.

At the start of the year, there had been hopes that the anniversary could serve as an icebreaker for a resumption of dialogue, but the two sides have been unable to agree on any joint celebratory event.