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Leading article: Death and diplomacy

Kim Dae-Jung may have hoped that the "sunshine policy" towards Pyongyang that defined his presidency of South Korea would survive him. But he can hardly have expected that it would do so in such a graphic and – dare we say – hopeful way. Kim's state funeral, held yesterday, was the occasion for more than 20,000 mourners to gather at the Parliament building in Seoul. In a turn of events few would have predicted even one month ago, however, those mourners included an official delegation from the North.

It is by no means unprecedented for a state funeral to provide a pretext for change – from outside a country, as well as within. For closed regimes, such as the former Soviet Union and China as it was, the funeral that followed a leader's death offered a rare and brief chance for outsiders to look in and new relationships to be forged. The death of Kim Dae-jung, an honoured elder statesman, supplied an ostensibly non-political opportunity for Pyongyang to show a fresh interest in engagement.

The timing could hardly have been better. It is only three weeks since the former US President, Bill Clinton, made a personal visit to North Korea to secure the release of two US journalists. On his return, he faced criticism for supposedly kowtowing to Kim Jong-il without obtaining from Pyongyang any concession on nuclear policy in return. That was not the prime purpose of his visit, but a three-hour meeting between the two suggested that much more must have been discussed.

The seniority of the envoys sent to Kim Dae-jung's funeral confirms that North Korea could be interested in a new opening to the outside world and might even accept some of the internal change that would go with it. It is also possible that interest in better relations might be mutual. President Lee Myung-bak, who has maintained a hard-line approach to the North since his 2007 election, received the delegation. There were also talks with the Reunification minister – the first for more than 18 months. It may be a long time before North Korea comes in from the cold, but the prospect is starting to look a little less remote than it did.