10/06/2014, 00.00
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Three top North Korean officials visit South Korea to reopen channels of communication

In a surprise move, three top aides to North Korea's dictator travel to Incheon to meet their South Korean counterparts to restart talks. Mystery still surrounds Kim Jong-un's health. For experts, there is much more.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - A surprise visit to South Korea by three top North Korean officials is something "huge," said Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. "Apart from anything else, the level was pretty much unprecedented in terms of previous delegations to the South," Lankov said. "Essentially it provided a direct line to Kim Jong-un."

The delegation, which made a surprise stop in Incheon for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, was led by Hwang Pyong-so, a newly elected vice-chairman of the nuclear-armed North's powerful National Defence Commission, who is widely seen as Kim Jong-un's number two. He was accompanied by Choe Ryong-hae, another Kim confidant, and Kim Yang-gon, a top ruling party secretary with responsibility for South Korean affairs.

The North Koreans met with their South Korean counterparts on Saturday, a day after South Korea was informed about the trip.

Seoul authorised the flight that brought the North Korean officials to Seoul. However, for the first time in at least two decades, the plane carrying the North Korean delegation flew directly into South Korean airspace without going through China.

South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and national security chief, Kim Kwan-jin met them at the arrival.

The first immediate result was the restart of bilateral talks. After a year of North Korean military provocations, family reunification is back on the agenda. However, experts expect much more.

"This was clearly no pro-forma visit. It was a very big deal indeed," said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"If you are [South Korean President] Park Geun-hye and you want a credible channel to the leadership in Pyongyang, then this is your dream team," Delury said.

Meanwhile, mystery still surrounds the fate of young Marshal Kim Jong-un. The North Korean dictator's last appearance dates back to 3 September.

Since then, rumours about his health have swirled around. State TV in a report aired on 15 September acknowledged that he was experiencing "discomfort", but claimed he had recovered completely. Still he has not been seen publicly.

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