North Korea sent a high-level delegation to South Korea on Saturday to attend the Asian Games closing ceremony amid a flurry of diplomatic activity that has raised hopes for improved ties between the archrivals in one of the world’s edgiest military flashpoints.
Heading the delegation was Hwang Pyong So, who arrived at South Korea’s Incheon airport in full military uniform, and Choe Ryong Hae. Both are senior aides to North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
Kim Yang Gon, a senior official in the ruling Workers' Party official and a longtime veteran of dealings ties with the South, was also among the delegation, which met South Korean government officials.
"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 two Koreas are technically at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Armed clashes in recent years have killed soldiers on both sides, and in 2010 civilians were killed when Pyongyang bombarded a South Korean island.
The South had cut off political and commercial ties with the North that year, after one of Seoul’s navy ships was apparently torpedoed and sank, killing 46 sailors. South Korea blamed Pyongyang for the attack.
Inter-Korean relations have reached a low point in recent years over the North's nuclear weapons program, military aggression and human rights abuses.
Several deals struck between the rivals have collapsed in the past, with North Korea walking out and threatening to punish its neighbor with a "sea of fire.”
South Korea insists that Pyongyang de-nuclearize before the two sides can come closer together, but few believe the North will ever surrender the ultimate weapon because it provides security for both the country and government.
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 U.N. General Assembly last month.
The North has been under U.N. sanctions for its occasional nuclear and missile tests, which have deepened its international isolation. But Pyongyang has expressed willingness to return to talks with key world powers, including the United States and China, on its nuclear program.
South Korea welcomed the North Koreans' Asian Games visit, and expressed hope that it would lead to a breakthrough in ties that have been in a deep freeze for more than four years.
"The government hopes that the high-level delegation's attendance at the Asian Games closing ceremony becomes a positive occasion for improved ties between the South and the North," said the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol.
Delegation head Hwang is the chief 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 Defense Commission, the supreme military council that Kim Jong Un himself heads, sealing Hwang’s status as one of the most powerful men in Pyongyang's leadership circle.
Choe, another delegate, has also been in the close circle of aides around Kim Jong Un and currently heads the country's agency promoting sports.
Kim Jong Un has been absent from public view since Sept. 3, fueling speculation that he may be in bad health. The North's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva has denied that Kim is ill.
The North Korean officials visiting the South were scheduled to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye's top national security adviser and the North's athletes at the Asian Games, and to attend the closing ceremony late Saturday before flying home later in the evening.
Al Jazeera and Reuters