SEOUL, Oct. 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea on Saturday sent the highest-ranking delegation ever to the South since President Park Geun-hye took office, a move that may indicate Pyongyang's desire to improve frosty bilateral relationships.
The surprise visit has been ostensibly arranged so the delegation can meet North Korean athletes taking part in the Asian Games in Incheon and attend the closing ceremony set for later in the day, but the sending of officials who are viewed as close confidantes of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has raised speculation that the trip may be a wish to send a reconciliatory message to Seoul.
Pyongyang made the request to send the delegation to the South on Friday.
Hwang Pyong-so, flanked by Choe Ryong-hae (R) and Kim Yang-gon, holds talks with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae in Incheon on Oct. 4. (Yonhap)
Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon arrived at Incheon International Airport on 10 a.m. and engaged in talks with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and Seoul's national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, in South Korea's second-largest port city west of Seoul.
Hwang who holds the rank of vice marshal in the Korean People's Army was recently made the director of the military's General Political Bureau, the top military post. He is widely viewed as the No. 2 man in the communist country after leader Kim Jong-un. He landed at Incheon International Airport in full military dress uniform.
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 Choe, who is a secretary of the WPK, and head of the Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Committee is said to still have influence despite stepping down from his post of vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.
The visit comes at a time when inter-Korean relations remain icy, while the absence of the North Korean leader from the public spotlight for several weeks, has stirred unsubstantiated rumors that he may be seriously ill or even a coup d'etat by disgruntled military officers has taken place in the isolationist country.
The composition of the officials makes it likely that they want to send some sort of message from the North Korean leader to the South.
Hinting of the political nature of the trip, Choe nodded in the affirmative to questions raised by South Korean reporters about the outcome of the latest talks.
National security adviser Kim, who arrived in Incheon after the North Korean delegation, on the other hand was more circumspect, and told reporters before attending the meeting that there were a lot of inter-Korean issues that needed to be tackled. The senior official said he needs to meet and talk with the North Koreans to get a better grasp of the situation.
Despite such forecasts, Seoul's unification ministry said Seoul is officially withholding judgment on why the North sent such a high-level delegation to Incheon at this juncture.
It, however, said it is hopeful that the visit can play a role in improving bilateral relations.
Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol pointed out 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 the officials to meet South Korean President Park.
He said the North Korean delegation plans to depart for Pyongyang after the closing ceremony at around 10 p.m.
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. (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.
On the surprise visit, independent observers such as Chung Sung-jang, a specialist on North Korea at the Sejong Institute, said the dispatching of the highest officials from the military ruling party may be a clear signal that Pyongyang wants to make headway on cross-border relations.
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.