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Top North Korea officials make rare visit to South as diplomacy ramps up

The two sides agreed to reopen dialogue amid a flurry of diplomatic activity which has raised hopes.

FILE: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Picture: APF.

INCHEON South Korea - North Korea sent its highest level delegation to South Korea on Saturday and the two sides agreed to reopen dialogue amid a flurry of diplomatic activity which has raised hopes for improved ties between the arch rivals.

Heading the delegation was Hwang Pyong So, who arrived at Incheon airport in full military uniform, and Choe Ryong Hae, two senior aides to North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un who were received in the South as his personal envoys.

Kim Yang Gon, a senior ruling Workers' Party official and a long time veteran of dealings with the South, was also among the delegation arriving at Incheon for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games.

It was not clear what motivated Pyongyang to undertake the surprise visit, which came with less than 24 hours' notice, but it appeared to be in line with leader Kim's state propaganda drive for the country as a "sports superpower". Kim is a sports enthusiast, and is known to follow basketball and soccer.

The officials met top South Korean officials, including the unification minister, tasked with inter-Korean affairs, and President Park Geun-hye's national security adviser.

"The Asian Games have been a significant event that showcased the nation's glory and strength to the world," Kim said at the meeting. "It was an enormous joy and pride for the nation as both the North and the South performed well."

The North agreed to resume talks, stalled since February, between senior officials sometime between late October and early November.

The two Koreas are technically at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. Armed clashes in recent years have killed soldiers on both sides, and in 2010 civilians were killed when the North bombed a Southern island.

South Korea cut off political and commercial ties with the North that year, when one of its navy ships was torpedoed and sunk, killing 46 sailors. Seoul blamed Pyongyang for the attack.

The attacks, along with the North's nuclear weapons programme and human rights abuses, have resulted in inter-Korean relations deteriorating sharply in recent years.

Hopes of a peaceful resolution have repeatedly been dashed, with the North reneging on deals, walking out on talks and threatening to punish its neighbour with a "sea of fire".

South Korea insists Pyongyang denuclearise for the two sides to come closer together, but few believe the North will ever surrender the ultimate weapon because it provides security for both the country and the government itself.

DIPLOMACY PICKS UP

Despite tense relations with the South, North Korea has been on a high-profile diplomatic outreach in recent weeks, with its foreign minister making visits to capitals and attending the UN General Assembly last month.

The North has been under UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests which deepened its international isolation but has expressed willingness to return to talks with key world powers, including the United States and China, on its nuclear programme.

South Korea welcomed the North Koreans' visit and raised hope that it would lead to a breakthrough in ties that have been in a deep freeze for more than four years.

Hwang is the head of the North Korean army's General Political Bureau, a powerful apparatus loyal to the secretive country's leader and a key post overseeing the 1.2-million-member military.

Last week he took on the added title of vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, the supreme military council that Kim Jong Un himself heads, sealing his status as one of the most powerful men in Pyongyang's leadership circle.

Choe has also been in the close circle of aides around Kim and currently heads the country's agency promoting sports.

Leader Kim has been absent from public view since 3 September, fuelling speculation that he may be in bad health. The North's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva denied Kim was ill.

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