S. Korea Debates Sending Condolences to N. Korea

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The [South Korean] government weighed Monday whether to send condolences to North Korea over the death of its leader, Kim Jong-il, as what could be an intense ideological clash over the matter began taking shape.

The Stalinist state earlier said it would hold a funeral for Kim on Dec. 28 in Pyongyang after it announced the 69-year-old “Dear Leader” had died of a heart attack Saturday.

“There’s been no decision on the matter,” unification ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon said during a press briefing. “It is being discussed among relevant departments.”

Pyongyang said it would maintain a mourning period through Dec. 29 and not accept any foreign delegations at the funeral ceremony.

But the main opposition Democratic Unity Party said after an emergency meeting that offering to send a delegation to the funeral was necessary.

“I think it would be appropriate to pay our condolences if North Korea accepts them,” opposition lawmaker Chung Dong-young, a former unification minister, said.

The issue could turn contentious as the conservative Lee Myung-bak government announced it would halt all South Korean travel to the North except for workers at the joint Gaeseong Industrial Complex near the border.

The quandary highlights deep ideological differences between the ruling and opposition camps over inter-Korean relations at a time of turmoil on the domestic scene.

Liberals here have supported an engagement policy with Pyongyang since the administration of Kim Dae-jung, who famously met with Kim Jong-il in a landmark summit in 2000. North Korea sent a delegation to the South to mark the passing of Kim Dae-jung in 2009.

Tensions between Pyongyang and the Lee government remain high as the North has yet to apologize for the sinking of a South Korean warship.

Lee entered office with a tough line on the North that halted massive aid, and tied its provision to denuclearization steps, souring relations.

The matter of whether to send condolences was earlier discussed at an emergency session of the National Security Council convened after North Korean state media surprised the world by announcing Kim’s death. A foreign ministry official earlier said on condition of anonymity the matter was a “political decision.”

Polls show many South Koreans favor a flexible approach toward the North.