Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, returned home Saturday without the much-anticipated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, dashing hopes for a breakthrough in cross-border relations.
Her failure to hold the meeting — which had been expected by some as the Seoul government had discounted her trip as a personal one — reconfirmed Kim’s poor diplomatic skills, analysts said, noting that his ineptitude was also demonstrated by his refusal to attend Russia’s 70th anniversary celebration in May of its victory in World War II, a rare diplomatic chance for the secluded ruler.
|Lee Hee-ho hugs a child during her visit to Aeyukone, an orphanage for kindergarteners in Pyongyang last Thursday. Kim Dae-jung Peace Center
The 93-year-old widow of the former president, who was noted for his inter-Korean reconciliation efforts, returned after four days of visiting orphanages, hospitals for children and mothers with newborn babies in Pyongyang, Mount Myohyangsan north of the capital, and other facilities.
Apparently anticipating questions on her failure to meet Kim, Lee stressed that her trip was a personal one without any official mission given to her.
“As a civilian myself, I was not given any official task to fulfill for this trip, but I carried out all my (personal) plans with a sense of duty to contribute to the spirits of the June 15 inter-Korean declaration,” she said during a press conference upon arrival at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul.
She was referring to the declaration signed in 2000 during an inter-Korean summit between her husband and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
“While holding hands of pure-looking children at orphanages in Pyongyang I visited, I thought deeply again that we should not pass down the pains of division to the next generation,” she added.
Lee’s side reportedly made a request to the North for her talks with Kim, but it was not accepted.
As criticism rose of the Seoul’s “passive attitude” over arranging the meeting between Lee and Kim, a senior official of Seoul’s Unification Ministry said that it was Pyongyang that was not “enthusiastic” in setting up the meeting.
“From the beginning stage when each side was preparing for her trip, there was no enthusiasm (about arranging the meeting) on the part of the North,” he told reporters. “The reason why we characterized her trip as personal is that should the meeting not be organized, there would be repercussions.”
During her stay in the North, she was greeted and accompanied by officials from the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee handling inter-Korean affairs, including Maeng Kyong-il, the committee’s vice chairman and vice-ministerial official.
Upon her arrival in Pyongyang, Maeng delivered Kim’s welcoming message verbally to Lee. But Kim did not offer any handwritten message to her, nor did he meet her face to face, even though he himself invited her late last year.
During a reception hosted by Lee’s side at Mount Myohyang Hotel on Friday, Lee asked Maeng to tell Kim that she was grateful to him for inviting her to the North. She also expressed her sadness about failing to meet him, her aides said.
To recognize the visit by the widow of former President Kim, who was once credited with promoting cross-border cooperation with his signature “Sunshine Policy,” the North Korean leader should have at least sent Kim Yang-gon, the North’s top official in charge of inter-Korean relations, to visit Lee, observers noted.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the local think tank Sejong Institute, said Kim’s refusal to meet Lee highlighted his lack of diplomatic finesse.
“His lack of diplomatic finesse was also confirmed when he refused to meet the visiting Mongolian president in 2013 and to attend the war victory celebration in Russia, which might have been a very crucial chance to improve the North’s external relations,” he said.
“I am not sure whether he is following his father’s footsteps: His father began summit diplomacy six years after the death of his father and national founder Kim Il-sung. This, anyway, would serve as a factor to deepen the North’s international isolation.”
On Wednesday, Lee took a direct flight over the West Sea to Pyongyang, using South Korean low-cost carrier Eastar Jet. It was her third visit to the North following the first during the inter-Korean summit in 2000 and the second in 2011 for the funeral of the former North Korean leader.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)
The Korea Herald