SEOUL — As tens of thousands gathered here Sunday to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his bid to reconcile relations with North Korea, Seoul's conservative government took a page from his diplomatic playbook, meeting face to face with envoys from its communist counterpart.
In a rare half-hour sit-down, his first since taking office last year, President Lee Myung-bak discussed growing tensions on the Korean peninsula with a high-level delegation from the North on hand to pay respects to Kim, who died Tuesday at 85 after a long bout of pneumonia.
Shortly before the state ceremony at the National Assembly on a humid late-August afternoon, the delegation appeared at the Blue House, the presidential residence, with an undisclosed verbal message from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, said Blue House spokesman Lee Dong-kwan.
A spokesman for Lee quoted him as saying during a photo session with Northern envoy Kim Ki Nam that "there is nothing that cannot be solved if South and North sort out their problems through communication and sincerity."
South Korean media today quoted an unidentified South Korean government official as saying that Kim Jong Il has requested a summit with President Lee. But the Blue House denied receiving such a request.
The meeting came amid a recent thaw in relations between the Koreas, started this month when former President Clinton traveled to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and secured the release of two U.S. television journalists held there.
After that visit, which many said displayed Kim Jong Il's willingness to engage with the U.S. and South Korea, the Pyongyang government released a South Korean worker it had held since March. North Korea also has removed most of the travel restrictions imposed last year on South Korean businesses at a joint industrial park just north of the demilitarized zone.
The usually bellicose North Korean state-run media were low-key Sunday in their reporting of the day's events, saying that the North's delegation had "visited Seoul to mourn the death of ex-President Kim Dae-jung."
The North's Korean Central News Agency acknowledged that the envoys met with Lee, saying that "issues of developing the relations between the North and the South were discussed."
A former secretary to the late South Korean leader called the meeting a fitting tribute to his efforts at North-South reconciliation.
"If there is a will left by Kim Dae-jung to Kim Jong Il and Lee Myung-bak, it goes: Don't confront with each other. Reconcile via communication," said Chang Sung-min, author of a book on North Korea.
Most mourners focused on saying goodbye to Kim, a defender of democracy who survived three assassination attempts, one death sentence and six years in prison.
Before he served as president from 1998 until 2003, Kim had become known as South Korea's most famous dissident. In 1973, he found himself on a boat, his limbs encased in concrete, about to be thrown overboard by assassins presumably working for South Korea's military dictatorship.
In 1985, when he returned from exile in the United States, arriving at Seoul's airport flanked by U.S. congressmen, he was seized and placed under house arrest by the nation's military rulers.
It is believed that the intervention of the CIA saved his life.
As president, on June 13, 2000, Kim traveled to Pyongyang for a historic summit with Kim Jong Il. The two leaders pledged to start a new era of peace on the Korean peninsula. But North Korea's nuclear ambitions later weakened the South Korean leader's "sunshine policy" of more liberal relations with the North.
Today, South Koreans enjoy a thriving democracy that is making strides toward reconciling with North Korea. And many attribute that progress directly to Kim Dae-jung.
"I came here to pay my tribute to Kim," said Kang Sang-gon, a 64-year-old small-business owner who attended the service. "He deserves countless respect from not only an individual but from the whole nation because of his thorough philosophy and strong belief about unification."
Kim's service was attended by Madeleine Albright, secretary of State for the Clinton administration; Stephen Bosworth, President Obama's envoy for North Korea policy; and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens.
Park is in The Times' Seoul Bureau.