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N Korea at crossroads

South Korean tycoons join Moon in Pyongyang

Samsung, Hyundai and LG leaders meet with North's deputy prime minister

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, right, shakes hands with Ri Ryong Nam, North Korean deputy prime minister, Tuesday in Pyongyang.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- An entourage of South Korean business leaders accompanied President Moon Jae-in on his three-day visit to Pyongyang to talk up economic cooperation in hopes of bringing the Northern neighbor closer to reconciliation.

Among the group of 17 business people is Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and the group's de facto leader. Lee, along with the rest of the high-profile contingent, met Tuesday with Ri Ryong Nam, North Korea's deputy prime minister for economic affairs.

The Moon administration believes the prospects of investment in North Korea, demonstrated by the presence of the delegation, will help convince Pyongyang to pursue denuclearization.

"I was surprised to see a Pyongyang building with a slogan 'centered on talent' written on the side, which is also Samsung's philosophy," Lee told the deputy prime minister. "I felt that we are truly one people."

"I understand that Mr. Lee Jae-yong is very famous on many fronts," Ri responded, sparking a burst of laughter in the room. Lee spent time in prison for his role in the wide-ranging bribery and corruption scandal that also unseated and jailed Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

The South Korean public has been split on Lee's trip to Pyongyang, where Moon held his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Appearing to address the controversial nature of the occasion, Ri asked Lee to "also become famous" for contributing to peace, prosperity and unification between the Koreas.

"Understood," said a smiling Lee.

Chey Tae-won, chairman of the SK group, recalled his first visit to Pyongyang in 2007, when then-President Roh Moo-hyun met with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il. "Pyongyang has progressed in 11 years," said Chey, bringing up the city's buildings and trees in particular.

The leaders of South Korea's four biggest chaebol conglomerates -- Samsung, LG, SK and Hyundai Motor -- joined Moon on the visit. The delegation also included the top brass from steelmaker Posco, as well as state-backed companies Korail, Korea Electric Power and Korea Development Bank.

South Korea's state enterprises anticipate full-fledged economic cooperation with the North as soon as sanctions are lifted, with the likely focus on infrastructure projects. But the U.S. is taking a tough stance against economic coordination, as the scarcely visible advancement in denuclearization has made such engagement is impossible.

No specific joint business projects appear to be forthcoming when Moon's visit to Pyongyang ends on Thursday. But during Tuesday's appearance at North Korea's Workers' Party headquarters -- the first for a South Korean president -- Moon signed a guest book with this phrase: "On peace and prosperity, the people's hearts are united."

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