Former South Korean first lady fails to meet North Korea leader on visit

Former first lady Lee Hee Ho arriving at Seoul's Gimpo Airport on Aug 5, 2015.
Former first lady Lee Hee Ho arriving at Seoul's Gimpo Airport on Aug 5, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - The widow of late South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung returned home Saturday from a rare trip to North Korea but her hoped-for meeting with leader Kim Jong Un failed to come off.

Lee Hee-Ho's four-day visit was ostensibly humanitarian but there had been much speculation about a possible meeting with Kim, who personally invited her.

However, her aides said she had had no chance of seeing the young leader during the trip.

Lee's husband is best remembered for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with the isolated but nuclear-armed North that led to a historic summit between him and Kim Jong Un's late father Kim JongIl in 2000.

Lee said she visited the North as a private civilian and had not been assigned any official duty.

"However, I made the trip with a view to dedicating to the spirit of the June 15 declaration", she said in a statement on returning to Seoul, referring to an inter-Korean agreement for peace and reconciliation signed at the end of the landmark summit.

After arriving in Pyongyang, Lee had visited hospitals caring for children and young mothers.

"Holding the hands of innocent, beaming children there, I deeply felt we should not pass the pain of the division of the motherland on to the next generations", she said.

"I hope all the Korean people put their minds together to overcome divisions and achieve reunification through reconciliation, cooperation and love, as was declared in the June 15 declaration", added the 93-year-old former first lady.

The "sunshine" policy was largely abandoned when a conservative administration took power in South Korea 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 high.

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

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