Three senior North Korean officials arrived in South Korea on a rare visit on Saturday to attend the Asian Games closing ceremony in what could potentially bring a breakthrough in tense ties between the rival Koreas.
Heading the delegation was Hwang Pyong So, who arrived at Incheon airport in full military uniform, and Choe Ryong Hae, two senior aides to North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un. They were expected to meet South Korean government officials.
Arriving for a meeting with South Korea's Minister for Unification at a hotel, the North's officials appeared upbeat and Choe nodded when asked by reporters whether they were optimistic about the outcome of their visit.
The visit came as a surprise because Pyongyang has been issuing invectives toward the South and President Park Geun-hye on a nearly daily basis, criticizing her calls for Pyongyang to end its arms program and improve human rights conditions.
Despite its tense relations with the South, North Korea has been on a high-profile diplomatic outreach in recent weeks, with its foreign minister making visits to capitals and attending the U.N. General Assembly last month.
The North has been under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests which deepened its international isolation but has expressed willingness to return to talks with key world powers including the United States and China on its nuclear program.
The two Koreas are technically at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. Armed clashes in recent years have killed soldiers on both sides, and in 2010 civilians were killed when the North bombed a Southern island.
South Korea generally welcomed the North Koreans' visit and immediately raised hope that it would lead to a breakthrough in ties that have been in a deep freeze for more than four years.
"The government hopes that the high level delegation's attendance at the Asian Games closing ceremony becomes a positive occasion for improved ties between the South and the North," said Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol.
Hwang is the head of the North Korean army's General Political Bureau, a powerful apparatus loyal to the secretive country's leader and a key post overseeing the 1.2-million-member military.
He took on the added title of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the supreme military council that Kim Jong Un himself heads as national leader, sealing his status as one of the most powerful men in Pyongyang's leadership circle.
Choe has also been in the close circle of aides around Kim and currently heads the country's agency promoting sports. Also among the delegation is Kim Yang Gon, a senior ruling Workers' Party official who has for years worked on ties with the South.
Leader Kim has been absent from public view since Sept. 3, fuelling speculation that he may be in bad health. The North's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva denied Kim was ill, saying such reports were "fabricated rumors."
The North Korean officials were scheduled to meet the South's Unification Minister, who is the main policymaker for Seoul on the North, and also President Park's top national security advisor.
They were scheduled to meet the North's athletes at the Asian Games and attend the closing ceremony late on Saturday before flying home later in the evening.