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SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Wednesday leader Kim Jong-il had sent condolences on the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the latest sign of a possible defrosting of relations between the rival Koreas.
Kim Dae-jung died on Tuesday at the age of 85. An extraordinary figure in South Korea's shift to democracy, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for a June 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il and efforts at reconciliation with the prickly North.
"Though he passed away to our regret, the feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation," North Korea's KCNA news agency quoted the message as saying.
A close aide of the late Kim, Park Ji-won, told reporters the North wanted to send a five-strong delegation to the South to pay its respects. He said it may arrive ahead of the funeral, which is expected to be held in about a week in the capital Seoul.
Analysts said Kim's death could provide an opportunity to improve ties between the Koreas, which have soured since President Lee Myung-bak took power in the South about 18 months ago and angered the impoverished North by cutting off a steady flow of aid it had seen since the 2000 summit.
"There's no doubt a softer atmosphere has been created but the North Koreans will put on stern faces if anyone tries to engage them in political talk at the funeral because they will say their visit is not related to the North-South political reality," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Despite signs of a softer tone with the outside world this month, Pyongyang's official media kept up its angry language over joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises which began on Monday.
"The army and the people of the DPRK (North Korea) are fully ready to react to the enemy's provocation with merciless retaliation," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary.
North Korean ruler Kim met the then-South Korean president at the airport when he arrived in June 2000 in Pyongyang for what was the first meeting of the leaders of the Koreas that are technically still at war.
The two held hands, shared smiles and sang traditional songs together in a summit that calmed tensions on the troubled peninsula.
The meeting was the culmination of the "Sunshine Policy" that won Kim Dae-jung the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize -- his idea of prodding the North forward with the promise of incentives and reducing the strain of unification through economic integration.
North Korean leader Kim had high-profile meetings this month with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, which resulted in the release of two jailed U.S. journalists, and the head of the powerful Hyundai Group, which is a major investor in the North.
That meeting helped win the release of a Hyundai worker detained since March and for calls to resume halted tourism of Southerners to the North as well as for the reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
Analysts said the North's rare acts of conciliation may signal that it has stopped its recent round of provocations that included a May nuclear test as it looks for aid to prop up its economy that has been hit with U.N. sanctions for its defiant actions. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Hong Ki-soo and Christine Kim Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Nick Macfie)