NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 67 (August 13, 2009) |
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)
All Eyes on Hyundai Chief's Possible Meeting with N. Korean Leader
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Hyundai Group chairwoman extended her trip to Pyongyang one more day Aug. 13 to negotiate the release of a South Korean worker detained there and possibly break the icy relations between the two countries. The reason for the extension was not immediately known, but it was largely believed she was waiting for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Hyun Jung-eun crossed into North Korea Aug. 10 seeking to free the 44-year-old Hyundai employee working in the Kaesong industrial complex. But her rare trip draws keen attention to a possible meeting with North Korean leader Kim, as it will signal a breakthrough in stalled inter-Korean relations, as well as the solution to the detainee case.
As of the morning of Aug. 13, North Korea remained silent about the anticipated meeting between the North Korean leader and the visiting Hyundai chairwoman. The extension of her stay in the North is the second following one Aug. 12. She was originally scheduled to return home Aug. 12 after a three-day visit to Pyongyang.
"Hyundai has told us that (its chairwoman) Hyun Jung-eun has extended her visit (to Pyongyang) one more day," Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said Aug. 13.
Hyun's trip is reminiscent of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's Pyongyang visit last week that brought two detained American journalists home in a positive signal for frayed North Korea-U.S. ties.
An employee of Hyundai Asan Corp., the group's North Korea business unit, has been detained in the North since late March on accusations of criticizing the North's political system and trying to persuade a local woman to defect. The 44-year-old man, identified only by his family name of Yu, was working at a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong. The detained South Korean man has been denied access to South Korean officials since his arrest on March 30.
The North's supervisory unit for the industrial enclave had described Yu as "a man who entered (Kaesong) wearing a Hyundai Asan hat and was apprehended while engaging in hostile activities against us." North Korea refused to reveal Yu's whereabouts or the details of his condition to South Korean officials during inter-Korean talks in Kaesong held in June and July.
The North Korean leader appeared to have been out of town, as the official Korean Central News Agency reported on his inspection of a northern naval academy in an early morning dispatch Aug. 12. Speculation ran high on whether Kim would meet with Hyun later in the day and what the two would discuss.
Hyun's father-in-law and Hyundai's late founder, Chung Ju-yung, flew to an eastern North Korean naval base to meet with Kim during a visit to Pyongyang in 2000. "The location makes no difference. It's only because of (the North Korean leader's) schedule," said Kim Young-soo, a Hyundai Asan spokesman.
In a positive sign, North Korea gave a hearty welcome to the Hyundai chief, opening the land border for her drive to Pyongyang and sending a high-level official, Ri Jong-hyok, to receive her.
Sources in Seoul said Hyun appeared to be staying at the Paekhwawon State Guest House, North Korea's highest-level guest house reserved for foreign heads of state and top dignitaries, judging from the background of a photograph of her released by state media on Aug. 10. Clinton stayed at the same guest house and dined there with the North Korean leader.
Hyun previously stayed there during visits in 2005 and 2007, when she was granted a meeting with the leader. In all those meetings, she was accompanied by her daughter and heir-apparent, Chung Ji-yi, who is also in Pyongyang now.
The high-profile trips by Clinton and the Hyundai chief have spurred hopes for progress in political relations in the region. Tensions rose after North Korea's rocket and nuclear tests earlier this year, and the U.N. Security Council adopted resolutions to stem the cash flow used to fund the North's weapons program. Pyongyang withdrew from regional denuclearization talks in protest.
Hyundai is deeply entwined in inter-Korean relations, with several North Korea ventures initiated by its late founder, Chung Ju-yung, who was born in North Korea. But the ventures hit a snag as political ties unraveled after President Lee Myung-bak took office last year with a tougher stance on North Korea's nuclear program and economic aid.
The South Korean government suspended Hyundai's major tourism program to North Korea's Mt. Kumgang in July last year after a female tourist was shot dead there by a North Korean solider. The North has never replied to the South's request for a joint investigation regarding Park's death.
North Korea closed another Hyundai tour program to the historic border town of Kaesong in December as part of retaliatory steps against the South's hard-line posture.
Hyun took over as the group chief after her husband, Chung Mong-hun, took his own life in 2003 amid mounting deficits from North Korean ventures and an investigation into allegations of a secret payment to North Korea.