REPORTING FROM SEOUL –- In a grass-roots movement far from the top government halls of power, many South Koreans are calling for renewed ties with Pyongyang in the aftermath of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death.
As the North's main newspaper on Monday heaped more titles on Kim's chosen successor, son Kim Jong Un, this time as head of the ruling party's key body, South Korea offered new olive branches toward more open relations.
South Korea's attitude change has as much do with new blood in Seoul as it does in Pyongyang.
Late Monday, a group of activists erected a peace memorial in downtown Seoul showing Kim Jong Il with a former South Korean president. The memorial was taken down by police within minutes.
"It is people's basic right in a democratic society to pay respect to anyone deceased," the group said in a statement. "We believe that South Korean people should also be given chances to mourn the death of the North Korean leader."
The new atmosphere here comes at a cost to President Lee Myung-bak. The hard-line Lee assumed office in 2008 pledging to halt most food and monetary aid and link future assistance to North Korea's agreement to dismantle its nuclear programs. Ties further unraveled after Pyongyang launched two deadly attacks on the South last year.
But Lee will leave office in the fall of 2012, and his ruling Grand National Party appears in shambles following a series of scandals and key election setbacks.
Lee's popularity has suffered at home due to an embarrassing real estate investment scandal. His policy to cast aside a more open "Sunshine policy" for slashed food aid and communication with North Korea seems to be at its least popular point.
In the lurch, a new generation of non-ruling-party politicians appear willing to make their own deals with the North and its new twenty-something leader as he seeks support from the top military command in his own nation.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Sunday that Kim Jong Il's death may afford a chance to improve Seoul's badly damaged ties with Pyongyang. The onetime civic activist, who was elected mayor this past fall, also expressed regret that South Korea is not allowing local governments to express formal condolences to North Korea.
Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack earlier this month at age 69.
On Monday, two prominent South Koreans crossed the border into the North to pay their respects to Kim. Former South Korean First Lady Lee Hee-ho and Hyundai firm head Hyun Jung-Eun are to spend two days in Pyongyang.
Seoul officials, who say the women are visiting in a personal capacity, did not know whether Kim Jong Un would grant a personal audience to the two, ages 89 and 54, respectively.
"I hope that our visit to the North will help improve South-North relations," the former first lady was quoted as saying by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Family members of late President Kim Dae-jung, whose conciliatory “Sunshine policy” toward the North led to a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, are among the few South Koreans who have been permitted to pay a condolence visit to the North following Kim's death.
Seoul has issued a ban on cross-border condolence visits by average South Koreans. The move angered the North, which warned of "grave implications" for bilateral relations. On Sunday, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea criticized the South Korean government for attempting to "quench the hot wind for condolatory visits."
"Their obstructions will entail unpredictable catastrophic consequences to the North-South relations," the committee said. "The nation will finally test the morality of the South Korean authorities as well as sincerity of their call for improvement of the North-South relations."
Seoul’s mayor seemed to agree.
"Chairman Kim's death could be a chance to newly shift South Korea-North Korea relations. Seoul's ties with Pyongyang must be improved to facilitate active inter-Korean exchanges," Yonhap quoted Park as saying. "It is regrettable that it is virtually impossible for local governments to issue condolences over Kim's death."
Park said he would like his city to "host Seoul-Pyongyang soccer matches and launch exchange programs for symphony orchestras in the two cities, which are sadly impossible due to the tensions between the two Koreas."
North and South Korea remain in a technical state of war, neither having signed a formal peace treaty after hostilities ended in 1953.
In recent days, North Korea, which is scheduled to hold a funeral for Kim on Wednesday, has been bestowing honors on his young successor, which many see as hints about Kim Jong Un's rise as ruler. North Korea began hailing him as "supreme leader" of the nation's military over the weekend.
While many are taking a wait-and-see attitude, some South Korean Internet users are calling for closer ties between the two historic enemies.
"We all know that North Korea is a failed regime. But we have to be patient with them, and do at least what we can do," one commenter wrote. "Until the day of unification comes, there always will be tension between North and South. If the government has at least some philosophical conscience left when it comes to the troubles within our countrymen, they should at least try and help in the non-governmental delegates paying condolences."
-- John M. Glionna and Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: Kim Jong Un, right, late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest known son and successor, visits Kumsusan Memorial Palace to pay respect to his father. Credit: Korean Central News Agency / Associated Press