N. Korea No. 2 visits South for rare talks

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N. Korea No. 2 visits South for rare talks
FILE - In this July 27, 2013 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to war veterans during a mass military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite thinly sourced reports that an order went out in mid-March 2014 for university students to buzz cut the sides of their heads just like North Korea’s supreme leader, recent visitors to the country say they haven’t seen evidence of any mass haircutting. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, July 8, 2014 file image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for a commemoration ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of its first leader, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s authoritarian leader makes no public appearances for three weeks, skipping a high-profile event he usually attends. Official state media make a reference to his “discomfort.” What follows is a smorgasbord of speculation about what's wrong with Kim Jong Un, and even what he might be eating. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
From left, silver medallists China's Wu Yang and Liu Shiwen, gold medallists China's Chen Meng and Zhu Yuling, and bronze medallists North Korea’s Kim Jong and Kim Hye-song, and Hong Kong’s Lee Ho Ching and NG Wing Nam stand for the medal ceremony for the table tennis women's doubles at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014.(AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
Members of the North Korean team stand wearing their silver medals during the medal ceremony for the men's soccer final match at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
North Korean soccer players sing their anthem behind their national flag during their men's Soccer final match at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Gold medalists North Korea's players celebrate during the victory ceremony of the women's soccer competition at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 02: South Korea Supporters cheer during the Mens Football Final match between South Korea and North Korea during day thirteen of the 2014 Asian Games at Munhak Stadium on October 2, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea's presumptive No. 2 and other members of Pyongyang's inner circle made a surprise 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 at the Korean People's Army and considered by outside analysts to be the country's second most important official after leader Kim Jong Un.

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. 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.

It was the first senior visit of this kind to the South since conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office in early 2013. The last such trip was in 2009. It wasn't clear what the officials talked about. Lim said there were no plans for the North Koreans to meet with Park.

One South Korean analyst saw the 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 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.

The other North Korean officials, Lim said, were Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Yang Gon, secretaries to the ruling Workers' Party. Hwang, the No. 2, holds other top posts, such as a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission led by Kim Jong Un and a vice marshal of the army.

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.

In 2009, senior Workers' Party official Kim Ki Nam and spy chief Kim Yang Gon, the same official who visited Saturday, came to South Korea during a mourning period to pay their respects to the late liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. During the visit, the North Koreans met President Lee, conveyed a message from then leader Kim Jong Il and discussed inter-Korean cooperation.

Besides the recent North Korean test firings of rockets and missiles, 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.

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