SEOUL, Oct. 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has sent a high-ranking delegation to the South for the Incheon Asian Games closing ceremony on Saturday, Seoul's Ministry of Unification said, a move that may indicate Pyongyang's desire to improve bilateral relationships.
According to ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol, the North informed the South on Friday that it wanted to send Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon to the ceremony slated for 6 p.m. Saturday. The request was made through North Korean sports authorities.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae is expected to hold talks with the North Korean officials over lunch, with the South's national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, joining the discussion. This meeting to take place in a hotel in the port city hosting the Asian Games will mark the highest-level meeting between South and North Korea after President Park took office in February 2013. The highest-ranking talks so far were between vice ministerial representatives in February.
North Korea's senior delegation to the Incheon Asian Games: Hwang Pyong-so (L), Choe Ryong-hae (C) and Kim Yang-gon (Yonhap file photo)
The visit by the influential figures is noteworthy because the three officials are not directly in charge of sports in the communist country.
Hwang was recently tapped as the director of the military's General Political Bureau, the top military post in North Korea. He holds the rank of vice marshal in the Korean People's Army and is largely viewed as the No. 2 man in the communist country after leader Kim Jong-un.
Kim Yang-gon is the long-standing head of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), tasked with overseeing the activities of sleeper agents operating in South Korea, while Hwang, who is a secretary of the WPK, is said to still have influence despite stepping down from his post of vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.
Seoul said the three officials along with nine others arrived via a direct air route from North Korea to Incheon International Airport at 10 a.m.
It said besides meeting with South Korean senior officials the delegation will meet North Korean athletes who took part in the Asiad and depart for Pyongyang after the closing ceremony at around 10 p.m. They are also expected to meet South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won at the closing ceremony.
Seoul, meanwhile, said that while it is withholding judgment on why the North is sending such a high-level delegation to Incheon at this juncture, it is hopeful that the visit can play a role in improving bilateral relations.
Lim pointed out that the purpose of the trip is for the North Korean delegation to meet its athletes, although the composition of the officials makes it likely that they want to send a message from Kim Jong-un to the South.
He added that Seoul was not aware if the officials would bring a letter from the North Korean leader and clarified the delegation will be staying in the Incheon area, and there are no plans for them to meet South Korean President Park.
Unification ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol holds a briefing to announce the visit of the high-ranking delegation to the Incheon Asian Games on Oct. 4, 2014. (Yonhap)
Related to the trip, South Korea's ruling and opposition parties all welcomed the visit by Hwang and his entourage.
The ruling Saenuri Party said Seoul should accept calls for high-level talks with the North.
"The visit coming at a time of tension between the two Koreas is something to be welcomed," said Rep. Kim Young-woo. The party spokesman said that by engaging in talks, the government should actively seek high-ranking talks to tackle outstanding issues.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) went a step further and called for a meeting between Park and the North Korean officials. The NPAD said by meeting the North Korean delegation, Park can lay the foundation for an inter-Korean summit.
Party spokesman Yoo Ki-hong said the visit should be used to resolve issues like the lifting of Seoul's sanctions against Pyongyang, restarting tours to the Mount Kumgang resort and arranging family reunions between those separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Others in the party said the sending of three top senior ranking officials marks a first and should be seen as a sign that Pyongyang wants to engage in talks that can open a new era of cooperation and exchange.
Reflecting the importance of the delegation, the North's state controlled media, which sometimes holds back news, quickly reported on the departure of the delegation to Incheon and highlighted their itinerary.