- Seoul has expressed sympathy to the North Korean people after Kim Jong Il's death
- It says it will also allow private groups to send delegations to the North to pay respects
- South Korea president says these actions are meant to show there is no animosity
- Pyongyang says it will welcome a delegation from the industrial group Hyundai
South Korea's actions toward Pyongyang after the death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il were intended to show that Seoul does not have animosity toward the North, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea said in a meeting with political leaders Thursday.
Lee told members of the governing and opposition parties that he believed North Korea had probably not expected South Korea to take such measures toward the North.
Seoul expressed its sympathy to the North Korean people through a statement on Tuesday, a day after North Korea's state-run media announced the death of Kim.
South Korea also said that while it would not send an official delegation to the North, it would allow a limited number of private groups to send delegations to the North if desired. It also announced that it would let civilian groups send messages of condolence to the North upon approval of the Unification Ministry in Seoul.
Pyongyang said Thursday that it would welcome a private delegation from Hyundai Asan, a South Korean company with heavy investments in the North, to pay respects to Kim.
North Korea delivered the message -- addressed to the chairwoman of Hyundai Group, Hyun Jeong-eun -- through the company's office in the North's Kaesong Industrial Park some 45 kilometers (27 miles) north of Seoul, said Roh Jee-hwan, a Hyundai spokesman.
Hyundai Asan has held a working level meeting with the government to discuss the details of the trip, according to the Unification Ministry.
The recent moves have been considered a break from the hardline approach to the North that Lee's administration had taken since coming into office in 2008. It contrasted with Seoul's reaction to the death of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 when the conservative South Korean government at the time did not offer its condolences.
"The swift stabilization of North Korea's leadership is in the interest of all neighboring countries," Lee said Thursday.
Many observers see the recent moves as efforts by Lee to improve the soured relationship with Pyongyang after tensions flared last year because of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of an island near Seoul.
Seoul demanded an apology for the sinking of the ship, which killed 46 seamen, but Pyongyang denied involvement. And North Korea said the South had provoked the bombing of the island, which led to four deaths.
"The death of Kim Jong Il can be seen both as a crisis and an opportunity," said Kwon Young-se, the chairman of the South Korean Parliament's Intelligence Committee and a member of Mr Lee's governing party. "The decision that the Lee Myung-bak administration made to express its condolences, I think, reflects a choice to consider what has happened in the past but also think about the future."
Kwon said he believes that by extending sympathy to the people of North Korea, as opposed to North Korea as a country, the Lee administration has found its own compromise.
Lee's efforts with the North are much less advanced than those of the two previous governments, under which the leaders of the two Koreas held summit talks in Pyongyang, Kwon said, but noted that Lee has made the first step toward improving what had become a tense, cold relationship between the two capitals.
Public opinion in the South is divided on whether it is appropriate to pay respects to Kim.
Critics have called for a more proactive approach by Lee, suggesting that sending condolences to the North Korean people was too indirect.
Some South Koreans argue that now is the time for Seoul to seize an opportunity to make a breakthrough in North and South relations, while others say the idea of paying respects to the dictator is out of the question.
"We don't pay respects in the South to someone who has committed atrocities, why are we even discussing this issue?" an internet user posted on an online message board under the username hwachon11_1.
"I know there's a lot of debate about the issue, but I think we need to see the North as a nation that we want to reunify with" a person using the name brit4men posted on the same message board. "I think it's only appropriate we send a delegation."