The widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the author of a now-jettisoned engagement policy with North Korea, crossed the fortified land border between the two sides on Monday to pay her respects to deceased dictator Kim Jong Il.
The former first lady was among a 13-member delegation of senior figures who went to Pyongyang to express condolences to Kim Jong Il's son and apparent successor, Kim Jong Un. But the trip was considered unofficial, carrying no government message from the South, Seoul insisted.
Ties between the North and South have been frozen since the election of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2008, who cut aid in a bid to force the North to abandon a nuclear program and bring it to the negotiating table.
The delegation, led by the former first lady, Lee Hee-ho, crossed the border by car. The South Koreans went to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where Kim Jong Il's body is lying in state and met with Kim Jong Un there, Seoul's Unification Ministry said in a statement.
"I hope my visit to North Korea will help improve South-North Korea relations," Yoon Chul-koo, an aide to Lee, quoted her as saying at an immigration office at the southern border of the De-Militarized Zone.
Lee, who met Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000 in the first inter-Korean summit since the end of the Korean War in 1953, will stay for two days and will not attend the Dec. 28 funeral.
Her husband, former president Kim Dae-jung, engineered a "sunshine" engagement policy with the North and held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000.
Also included in the delegation was Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, whose late husband had ties to the North.
Footage from AP Television News in North Korea showed the group being greeted by North Korean officials during a stop at a factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. North Korea sent delegations to Seoul when the women's husbands died.
'Pure condolence' visit
Lee spent met with Kim Jong Un for just ten minutes on Monday, the South's Unification Ministry said, the BBC reported.
Most South Koreans are banned from going to the North under the current government's policy and South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North, is not sending an official delegation to mourn Kim, who died earlier this month.
Asked by reporters at the crossing point whether the delegation plans to meet North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, Yoon said the visit was for "pure condolence."
Kim Jong-un, who is in his late 20s, is the third of his line to rule the impoverished North, although he is likely to share power with a coterie.
Kim Jong Un has made several high-profile appearances on state TV since his father's death was announced a week ago.
His surprise meeting with the South Koreans could be intended to push South Korea to pursue cooperative projects that would give North Korea much-needed aid, analysts said.
North Korea also identified Kim Jong Il's son as head of a top ruling party body Monday, a post that gives him authority over political matters in addition to the military control attributed to him in recent days.
Kim Jong Un has rapidly gained prominence since the death of his father on Dec. 17, with the state media showering new titles on him almost daily.
A second group of mourners from South Korea led by the widow of one of South Korea's biggest conglomerates that has investments in the North was also headed to Pyongyang.
Hyun Jeong-eun, the wife of the Hyundai business group's late former chairman Chung Mong-hun, led a delegation of five people.
Hyun's father-in-law was Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung, who established Hyundai Asan Corp in 1999 as a major investor in North Korea's Mt. Kumgang tourist resort business.
The business has been suspended since the fatal shooting in 2008 of a South Korean tourist at the resort.
Hyundai Asan is also involved in the Kaesong Industrial Park project in the North, one of the impoverished North's few sources of foreign currency.