SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's leader sent condolences to South Korea on Wednesday following the death of former President Kim Dae-jung and proposed dispatching a delegation to honor a man whose unflagging fight for democracy and reconciliation earned him the title "Nelson Mandela of Asia."
In central Seoul, mourners — many clad in black — bowed before a huge portrait of Kim adorned with white chrysanthemums, the traditional flower of death. Many wiped away tears.
"We will always remember you," read a message scrawled in a condolence book. "Rest in peace — now we will defend Korea's democracy."
Kim, who won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to foster reconciliation with North Korea, died Tuesday at age 85. His death unleashed an outpouring of grief across South Korea, and drew condolences from Paris to Pyongyang.
"The feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency quoted leader Kim Jong Il as saying in a Wednesday report.
Kim will be honored with a state funeral at the National Assembly and laid to rest at a cemetery in southern Seoul on Sunday, Lee Dal-gon, minister of public administration and security, told reporters. Flags will be flown at half-staff until the mourning period ends on Sunday.
North Korea wants to send about five officials to Seoul to pay their respects, said Kim Dae-jung's former aide, lawmaker Park Jie-won. North Korea has only dispatched a condolence delegation for one other South Korean, Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai Group, which funded the first inter-Korean joint projects.
The South Korean government was considering whether to allow the visit, said Lee Jong-joo, a spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry, which handles North Korean affairs.
The rare visit could offer a chance for dialogue to improve relations between the two Koreas, divided by a heavily fortified border. They remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in 1953 with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Tens of thousands in South Korea were in mourning for a man who, as an outspoken dissident, risked his life for democracy during South Korea's era of military rule. He was elected president in 1997 at age 72.
"If you say democracy, there is only one person: Kim Dae-jung," said Lee Tae-ho, 28, a graduate student in Seoul.
North Koreans in Pyongyang were mourning too, according to the Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based newspaper considered a mouthpiece for the North Korean government.
After decades of enmity, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il made history with a summit in Pyongyang in 2000. Inter-Korean relations blossomed in the years that followed, although they have worsened since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a hardline policy on the North.
Associated Press writer Wanjin Park contributed to this report.