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Top North Korean Officials Make Surprise Visit to South Korea

A delegation of seven top officials from North Korea attended the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, an unexpected visit that came amid intense speculation about the health of dictator Kim Jong-un.

by Liz Fields
Oct 4 2014, 5:19pm

Photo by Dita Alangkara/AP

Top officials from North Korea paid a surprise visit to their neighbors in the South on Saturday, an unexpected turn of events that coincided with reports that dictator Kim Jong-un is ailing and losing control of the reclusive country.

The diplomatic sojourn perhaps signals a potential thawing of relations in the Korean peninsula, with the North agreeing to resume high-level talks in October and November, according to the South Korean government.

"The North explained that it intends to continue inter-Korean dialogue," the South's Ministry of National Unification said in a statement Saturday. The statement did not specify what topics would be included in the discussions.

Working-level consultations would reportedly occur prior to the formal meetings later in the year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye was also willing to meet with the North Korean officials Saturday, though he wasn't available because of time constraints, officials said in the statement.

Former top official says Kim Jong-un is no longer in control of North Korea. Read more here.

The North Korean delegation of seven, including Hwang Pyong-so and Choe Ryong-hae, two of Kim Jong-un's top aides, and Kim Yang-gon, a senior ruling Workers Party official, arrived for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games held in the port city of Incheon, according to Reuters.

The North Koreans reportedly only gave South Korea a day's notice in advance of their arrival.

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

In the last four years, North-South relations have reached a particular low point in the six decades since a three-year war between the countries ended in 1953. The end of the conflict, which concluded with a truce, rather than peace treaty, means the two nations are technically still at war. Tensions have steadily escalated as each has accused the other of various military and diplomatic provocations. 

North Korea's continued tests of nuclear missiles and widespread human rights abuses have further inflamed tensions with the South, and received condemnation and sanctions from the broader international community. Analysis of commercial satellite imagery cited Wednesday in a report by the website 38 North suggested that North Korea has finished construction on a satellite launching pad and is "now ready to move forward with another rocket launch." 

But South Korean officials expressed hope Saturday that the North's visit would help soothe the strain between the countries. 

"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," South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said.

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Meanwhile, British media has reported that Pyongyang was in a state of lockdown and that a coup d'etat had possibly occurred amid the notable absence of North Korea's leader from the public eye in the last 26 days.

But sources in Pyongyang told NK News, a Seoul-based source of North Korea news and analysis, that life in the city seemed to be running as normal and that there were "no signs of any tense situation in the city."

"I did not hear anything about the city being locked off from North Korean visitors," the source told NK News. "This very topic looks a bit strange."

A US State Department spokeswoman told reporters this week that the coup reports are unconfirmed.

A recent report from a South Korean-based think tank suggested that Kim's younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, a senior Korean Workers' Party [KWP] official, has been charged with taking care of official government business in lieu of her brother, who is reportedly receiving medical treatment at North Korea's Bonghwa Clinic. The reports could not be independently confirmed by VICE News.

A former top official in North Korea told VICE News on Thursday that Kim is no longer in control of the country, and that members of the government's Office of Guidance and Development (OGD) have effectively seized power. The defector, a former counterintelligence official and poet laureate under Kim Jong-il, suggested the OGD could install one of Kim Jong-un's siblings as figurehead of the regime.

The North Korean government has not officially released details of the supreme leader's health issues, but his virtual disappearance from public and government affairs since early September has been the topic of intense media speculation. Various unconfirmed rumors have suggested the 31-year-old dictator is suffering from gout, allergies to Swiss cheese, and recovering from ankle surgery. North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations told Reuters last week that reports about Kim Jong-un's poor health are "fabricated rumors."

VICE News' Keegan Hamilton contributed to this report.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

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