North Korean leader to make first visit to Seoul next spring

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Kim Jong Il will visit Seoul next spring, the first leader from communist North Korea to visit the democratic south.

The announcement came Friday in a speech by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to an advisory group on national unification. His speech was read by the group's deputy chairman.

Kim Dae-jung visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in June for a historic summit. A visit by a Northern leader to the South would be an important milestone in improving relations between the two Koreas after five decades of animosity.

The Korean Peninsula was divided into communist North Korea and pro-Western South Korea in 1945. Their war in the early 1950s ended without a peace treaty.

Kim Dae-jung told Japan's Asahi newspaper on Thursday that he was almost certain that the visit will take place in March or April. The interview was published on Friday.

The North Korean leader's special envoy, Kim Yong Sun, visited South Korea earlier this week to discuss Kim Jong Il's promised trip.

A joint statement released Thursday said Kim Jong Il will come to Seoul ''in the near future.''

The Southern president also said that defense ministers of the two Koreas will meet for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War later this month.

South Korea has sought military dialogue with North Korea to discuss tension-easing measures, such as a military hot line to prevent accidental armed skirmishes.

The communist North's 1.1 million hard-line armed forces are considered one of the biggest obstacles to promoting reconciliation on the divided Korean Peninsula. Up to 2 million battle-ready troops face each other across the border.

Also Friday, Seoul said its defense minister has recently exchanged letters with his North Korean counterpart to try to arrange their meeting.

Relations have improved significantly since the June summit, the first between the two Koreas. During the meeting, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il agreed to work together for reconciliation.

The two sides have since stopped propaganda broadcasts, reopened border liaison offices and agreed to reconnect a cross-border railway. They also let their athletes march together behind a unification flag during the opening ceremonies Friday at the Sydney Olympics.


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