The widow of South Korea’s most iconic liberal president is traveling to North Korea in the hope of initiating a thaw in relations between the uneasy neighbors.
Lee Hee-ho, whose late husband, former President Kim Dae-jung, is best known for his “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement with the North, arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday for a four-day visit.
The 93-year-old former first lady, who is visiting at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is seen as the custodian of her husband’s legacy of goodwill gestures toward Pyongyang. In local liberal circles, she remains a symbol of a presidency credited with fostering unusually warm inter-Korean relations, despite several fatal naval skirmishes that also occurred during the period.
The former president Kim, who governed from 1998-2003, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his reconciliation efforts. Those efforts culminated in a historic joint summit with former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Explaining the intention behind the trip, Kim Sung-jae, an official at the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency: “Lee voiced hope that the two Koreas could heal pain and wounds from a 70-year-long inter-Korean division and promote reconciliation and co-operation.”
It’s unclear whether Lee’s visit, which is being undertaken in a private capacity, could spur movement in the currently moribund inter-Korean ties. Lee previously visited North Korea in 2011 to pay her respects upon the death of Kim Jong-il. It is not certain whether Lee will actually meet with Kim Jong-un while in the country.
“Obviously hopes are high that Lee Hee-ho’s trip will lead to resumption of North-South dialogue,” Donald Kirk, the author of Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine and a longtime Korea correspondent, told The Diplomat. “I wouldn’t, however, be too optimistic.”
Whatever Lee’s intentions, the outcome of the visit is not entirely in her hands, with Pyongyang and Seoul holding the cards for future talks. Indeed, the very portrayal of the visit is out of her control. Pyongyang is likely to use the trip for its own propaganda ends, according to Kirk.
“More likely, North Korea will publicize it, suggesting the trip shows the failure of South Korea to live up to terms of the joint declaration signed in June 2000 during the inter-Korean summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il,” he said.
“Lee accompanied her husband on that trip and also has been there since then. North Korea exploits her presence for its own purposes — one reason [South Korean] President Park didn’t give her a special message to carry to the North.”