SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea's presumptive No. 2 led members of Pyongyang's inner circle in a rare trip Saturday to South Korea for the close of the Asian Games, with the rivals holding their highest level face-to-face talks in five years.
After months of tensions, including a steady stream of insults between the divided neighbors and an unusual number of North Korean missile and rocket test firings, expectations for any breakthrough weren't high, but even the visit itself was significant, allowing valuable contact between confidants of North Korea's authoritarian leader and Seoul's senior official for North Korean affairs.
The North Korean delegation to the games in Incheon was led by Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People's Army and considered by outside analysts to be the country's second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un. Hwang is also a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission led by Kim and a vice marshal of the army.
The visit comes as rumors swirl in the South about the health of Kim, who has made no public appearances since Sept. 3 and skipped a high-profile recent event he usually attends. A recent official documentary showed footage from August of him limping and overweight and mentioned his "discomfort."
The two sides met briefly in the morning, and Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters that the North Korean officials would hold their main talks over lunch with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and national security director Kim Kwan-jin before flying back home later Saturday after the games' closing ceremonies.
The success at the games for both Koreas, which were in the top 10 for gold medals, is a source of pride for all Koreans, said one of the North Korean officials, Kim Yang Gon, a secretary in the ruling Workers' Party and senior official responsible for South Korean affairs, according to the YTN TV network.
"As I watched some people (in the stands) shouting unification slogans and waving unification flags on TV, I'm proud that the sports sector is taking the initiative in terms of the national unification," said Choe Ryong Hae, another Workers' Party secretary who is also chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission.
It wasn't clear what the officials talked about. Lim said there were no plans for the North Koreans to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
High-level North Korean visits to South Korea have been highly unusual since inter-Korean relations became strained after Park's conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, took office in early 2008 with a tough line on the North. Attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
The last such senior visit south was in 2009, when senior Workers' Party official Kim Ki Nam and spy chief Kim Yang Gon, the same official who visited Saturday, came to pay their respects to the late liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. The North Koreans met President Lee, conveyed a message from then leader Kim Jong Il and discussed inter-Korean cooperation.
One South Korean analyst saw Saturday's talks as a crucial moment for inter-Korean ties over the next few years.
If no progress follows Saturday's talks, the rivals' strained relations will likely continue until Park, who took office in early 2013, finishes her single five-year term, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute.
Cheong speculated that the North Korean officials were probably carrying a message from Kim Jong Un. The visit could also be part of an effort to show that Kim has no problem making high-profile political decisions and has no serious health issues, he said.
Besides the North Korean test firings of about rockets and missiles this year, both sides have leveled harsh criticism at each other, with North Korean state media calling the South Korean president a prostitute.
The Asian Games participation by the North was welcomed as a step forward.
North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, both in Seoul, but attended the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 University Games in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon. Those last three came during an era of liberal governments in Seoul that were more accommodating to Pyongyang.
North Korea had said ahead of these games that it wanted to send both athletes and cheerleaders but later balked at sending cheerleaders because of what it called South Korean hostility.