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Former South Korean First Lady to Visit North Korea

FILE - Lee Hee-ho, center, the wife of the late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, arrives at the Inter-Korean Transit Office from North Korea at the border village of Paju in the demilitarized zone, South Korea, Dec. 27, 2011.

The wife of late South Korean president Kim Dae-jung will visit North Korea early next month, Kim’s foundation said Monday.

Lee Hee-ho, the 92-year-old former first lady, will travel to the North August 5-8.

Lee plans to visit a children’s hospital, a maternity home and a nursery in Pyongyang during the trip, according to officials from the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center.

It was not clear if Lee would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Sung-jae, who returned from talks with the North Koreans in Kaesong for the visit, told reporters it was not appropriate for him to speculate if the North would allow such a meeting.

The visit raises hopes of a possible thaw in inter-Korean relations. Recently, the two sides have been at odds over the establishment of a U.N. human rights field office in the South, after the office opened in Seoul despite the North’s repeated threats to retaliate.

Analysts in Seoul say whether the visit will lead to improvements in relations between the two Koreas mainly depends on the possible meeting between Kim and Lee.

“If South Korean President Park Geun-hye sends a message to the North through Lee and if she meets with Kim Jong Un during the trip, it could serve as an important foundation for restoring the inter-Korean ties. But if there is no such message and the meeting does not happen, it will be just a personal event,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at University of North Korea Studies.

Some are skeptical about whether Lee can play such a role. Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification, said receiving Park’s message might not be Pyongyang’s motive for inviting Lee.

“It is designed to promote Kim Jong Un’s attempt at improving inter-Korean ties and to strengthen his image as a leader supporting unification,” said Chang.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, a government agency that handles inter-Korean affairs, said it supports the visit.

Last year, Kim Jong Un extended Lee an invitation to visit, after she sent a wreath marking the third anniversary of his father’s death. The trip would mark Lee’s first visit to the North since December 2011, when she briefly met with Kim and offered condolences for the death of Kim Jong Il.

Details of the visit, including the size of an entourage, have not been decided.

Jee Abbey Lee and Eunjee Kim contributed to this report.