NEW YORK, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak urged North Korea on Tuesday to give up its nuclear programs, saying denuclearization is a key first step toward eventual unification of the two divided states.
Lee made the appeal during a speech after receiving a global leadership award upon arriving in New York for a three-day visit.
Lee is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday and a special high-level meeting on nuclear safety on Thursday.
The remark came as the chief nuclear envoys of South and North Korea were to meet in Beijing on Wednesday for bilateral denuclearization talks aimed at paving the way for restarting the long-stalled six-party negotiations on ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
"I hope the entire 70 million people on the Korean Peninsula will live peacefully and happily," Lee said after receiving the World Statesman Award by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. "The most important thing for that is to remove threats to peace on the Korean Peninsula through denuclearization and to build mutual trust between the South and the North."
Based on denuclearization, the two Koreas can strengthen economic cooperation and eventually achieve unification, Lee said.
"A unified Korea will pose no threat to any countries, will rather facilitate prosperity of neighboring nations and contribute greatly to world peace," Lee said. "I think my role during the remainder of my term is to lay the groundwork for that day to come."
The six-party nuclear talks have been stalled since the last session in late 2008 due to Pyongyang's boycott and tensions over the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year. Seoul demands Pyongyang first show its denuclearization commitment in bilateral talks before reopening the broader session.
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation has given the statesman award to a world leader every year for their contribution to world peace, democracy and human rights. Previous recipients include former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
During his acceptance speech, Lee spoke about his personal rags-to-riches story, including how poor his family was and how hard he worked to rise to become a major construction CEO, as well as his fight for democracy, which once put him in jail.
Lee also highlighted South Korea's rapid transformation into one of the world's largest economies from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War and from an aid recipient to a donor nation.
Lee said that South Korea owes much to the U.S. for its rapid development.
"The Korea-U.S. alliance not only helped security, but also provided a big help in safeguarding free democracy and a market economy," he said. "Based on this, the Republic of Korea was able to achieve democracy and economic development at the same time."
Lee also made a pitch for his "ecosystemic development" campaign, which calls for big businesses and those well-off to play greater roles in helping less-well-off people so as to reduce social inequalities.