South Korean Delegation Visits North Korea, Amid Mounting Tensions Caused by Sony Hack

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Pyongyang, North Korea

Hyundai chief and former South Korean presidential aides have accepted a friendly invitation from Pyongyang, but recent cyber attacks are expected to negatively affect already strained inter-Korean relations

A South Korean delegation left for North Korea on Wednesday morning to meet with Pyongyang's chief on inter-Korean affairs. The visit was approved by Seoul amid mounting tensions triggered by already strained inter-Korean ties and the negative effects of the Sony hack.

The delegation is comprised of members of Hyundai Group, which had organized South Korean tours into the North's scenic Mt. Kumkang for a decade until a shooting incident in 2008, and officials of a local peace center.

The group was invited by Kim Yang-gon, director of the North's United Front Department in charge of South Korean affairs, who wanted to thank the South. Last week, South Korean officials delivered a wreath for the third anniversary of the death of communist state's late leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un. In August, Pyongyang sent a wreath of flowers for the fifth anniversary of the death of Kim Dae-jung, the late former South Korean president who received a Nobel Peace Prize for initiating the first ever inter-Korean summit in 2000.

"We are simply making the trip as the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly hopes to express thanks for the wreath [last week]," said former South Korean Culture Minister Kim Sung-jae, a member of the delegation.

Despite the recent visits, however, inter-Korean relations have largely remained strained, and the worsening North Korea-U.S. ties triggered by the Sony hack is expected to further estrange the two Koreas. The Seoul government remains careful, and rejected Tuesday the request of Rep. Park Jie-won of the main opposition party to join the delegation, saying the decision is "in consideration of various situations."

As the U.S. contemplates returning North Korea to terrorism list in light of the recent cyber attack, the South Korean government has said it will "carefully watch the turn of events." "North Korea's acts of provocation such as cyber terror threats must come to a stop," said Unification Ministry Spokesperson Lim Byung-chul.

North Korea's legacy of terrorism extends beyond cyber space. The U.S. added the Stalinist country to its State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1988 after Northern agents hijacked South Korean passenger planes but removed it in 2008. Last year, North Korea made massive cyber attacks against major media companies and banks in the South, and South Korea has since been closely exchanging information about the hack with the U.S.

"The [South Korean and U.S. governments] are in close contact to exchange information about North Korea, and are discussing many options regarding possible provocations by the North," said a government official.

"The embittered ties between the North and the U.S. is likely to have negative effects on inter-Korean relations so we are watching things very carefully," said another local official — particularly in light of how South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong Un are expected to meet for the first time in May, as both have been invited to Moscow for a WWII anniversary event.

Aside from U.S.-North Korea issues affecting inter-Korean relations, however, the two Koreas have also been at odds over a recent ruling in Seoul. In the first verdict of its kind, the South Korean Constitutional Court ordered the disbandment of the United Progressive Party, a small leftist party accused of "establishing a North Korean-style socialist system" and violating the South's national security. North Korea has since criticized the move, and the South Korean government has since said such criticism from its northern neighbor was "a pity."

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