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Ex-first lady Lee hoping for May visit to N. Korea

The widow of former President Kim Dae-jung hopes to visit North Korea next month, a trip that could help alleviate tension on the divided peninsula, her nonprofit organization said Sunday.
  

Lee Hee-ho, who was the first lady while Kim served in office from 1998 to 2003, is targeting late May for her visit and is awaiting a response from North Korea by late April or early May, according to Kim Sung-jae, an official at the Kim Dae Jung Peace Center.
  

"Upon receiving authorization from our government, we contacted our North Korean counterparts via fax about meeting in Kaesong prior to Mrs. Lee's visit," Kim Sung-jae told Yonhap on the phone. "They said last week they'd be in touch later after dealing with some complicated issues. They said the invitation to Lee still stands."
  

Kim was referring to a letter addressed to Lee by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in December. Lee had sent a wreath of flowers across the border to mark the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il. In the letter, Kim Jong-un wrote that he was looking forward to having Lee in Pyongyang once the weather got warmer in 2015.
  

Kim Sung-jae said that because Kim Jong-un may be visiting Russia early in May for Moscow's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, sometime later in the month will be better suited for Lee's trip.
  

"If we don't hear back from our North Korean counterparts later this month or early next month, then we will contact them again," Kim Sung-jae said. "Since Kim Jong-un himself extended the invitation, I don't think we'll need to discuss whether (Lee) will meet with him."
  

Lee had first expressed her wish to travel to North Korea for humanitarian purposes when she met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in October. Park then indicated she would approve such a trip once a formal request is made. North Korea also gave her a green light.
  

Any trip by South Koreans to North Korea requires the South Korean government's approval along with the North's consent. The two technically remain in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
  

Lee, 92, made her last trip to Pyongyang in 2011 to attend the funeral of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. She met with the younger Kim then.
  

Kim Dae-jung is popular in North Korea for his "sunshine" policy of actively pushing cross-border exchanges and reconciliation. After holding the first inter-Korean summit with the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, in 2000, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year.
  

Lee joined her husband on that trip to Pyongyang.
  

Lee's move comes amid high inter-Korean tension over South Korea's joint military exercises with the United States.
  

South Korea completed Foal Eagle, its annual joint military exercise with the U.S., last week, as North Korea renewed its yearly threat of retaliation over what it claims is a rehearsal for a northward invasion.
  

With Foal Eagle out of the way, optimists expect the two Koreas to seek ways to ease tension. Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo, Seoul's point man on Pyongyang, said at a recent press briefing that he was counting on "more progress" in the inter-Korean relations after April.
  

The Koreas, though, have at least one outstanding thorny issue: a wage row at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex.
  

They've been embroiled in the wage dispute since North Korea in March unilaterally increased the minimum wage by 5.18 percent to $74. South Korea hasn't accepted the move, saying that the North violated a prior agreement that calls for the two sides to jointly set the wages. The annual increase has been capped at 5 percent.
  

The two Koreas on Friday agreed to hold further talks on the issue. (Yonhap)

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