SEOUL - Senior North Korean officials sent by leader Kim Jong-il arrived in the South on Friday to mourn former President Kim Dae-jung in a move that may signal a warming of ties between the rival states.
But in an indication of the North's anger at the hardline policies of current President Lee Myung-bak toward Pyongyang, the group will leave on Saturday ahead of the South's state funeral so as not to appear at any official government events.
The first dispatch of envoys to the South in nearly two years follows several moves by the North this month to reduce tension after conducting a nuclear test in May, firing missiles and threatening to attack its capitalist southern neighbor.
China's Xinhua news agency said the country's chief nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, had visited the reclusive North in the first such high-level trip to its capital since six-country disarmament talks broke down almost a year ago.
Wu met his counterpart, Xinhua said, but there was no report on whether he met the North's leader during the five-day stay.
China, the closest North Korea has to a major ally, backed the U.N. resolution condemning the North's May 25 nuclear test and imposing new sanctions, but has long been reluctant to press for more.
NORTH KOREANS PAY RESPECT
The six North Korean officials arrived by air. They went to a memorial for the former president and laid a wreath sent by Kim Jong-il and signed: In memory of late President Kim Dae-jung.
They met Kim's family and aides who served the former South Korean leader but there were no indications they would meet any current South Korean government officials.
Kim Dae-jung, awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the first summit between the two Koreas which led to a dramatic warming of ties, died on Tuesday at the age of 85. The funeral will be held on Sunday.
Relations chilled after conservative Lee took office and cut off a steady flow of unconditional aid to the North, calling on it to reduce security threats to the region if it wants handouts.
The North's rare conciliatory moves could mean it wants greater contact with the outside world after being hit with U.N. sanctions for its nuclear test.
The delegation's overnight stay and their political rank shows signs that they may be willing to talk over some current issues at hand, said Yang Moo-jin, an expert at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Investors said the change in tone has eased their concerns that troubles could worsen and harm regional economies.
But North Korea has a long history of sharp changes of tack in its diplomacy and few analysts believe it has any intention of giving up its dreams of building a nuclear arsenal.
North Korea first signaled a change of tactics earlier this month when it released two jailed American journalists following a visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang, where he met leader Kim Jong-il.
More than a week later, Kim met the head of the South's Hyundai Group, and said he wanted to restore suspended tourism and business projects run by a Hyundai affiliate.
He sent a message of condolence over Kim Dae-jung's death and his state ended border restrictions with the South imposed in December.
But all the while, the North's media has kept up heated rhetoric slamming Lee and threatening to unleash nuclear weapons if joint U.S. and South Korean military drills that started this week infringe on its territory.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Jerry Norton)