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South ponders new approach to N.K.

Steps intended at showing Seoul is not hostile toward Pyongyang, Lee says


South Korea is pondering on a new approach to North Korea, as the death of the communist state’s iron-fisted ruler is believed to have opened a new chapter in inter-Korean ties.

Relations between the divided Koreas deteriorated to their worst point in years in Kim’s final two years. A total of 50 South Koreans, mostly soldiers, were killed by two military provocations by the North in 2010.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Thursday that his government had taken steps toward reconciliation in the wake of the momentous development in the North.

“The measures taken were intended at sending a message that we’re not hostile toward North Korea,” Lee said during a meeting with heads of major political parties. 
President Lee Myung-bak meets with leaders of the ruling and opposition parties over the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. From left are Rep. Won Hye-young, co-head of the main opposition Democratic Unified Party; Lee; Rep. Park Geun-hye, interim leader of the ruling Grand National Party. (Yonhap News)
President Lee Myung-bak meets with leaders of the ruling and opposition parties over the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. From left are Rep. Won Hye-young, co-head of the main opposition Democratic Unified Party; Lee; Rep. Park Geun-hye, interim leader of the ruling Grand National Party. (Yonhap News)

By measures he referred to Seoul’s offering of condolences to North Koreans on the passing of their leader, a plan to permit some mourners to cross the border and its efforts to avoid any actions that could provoke the North, such as lighting Christmas decorations along the border.

“We could use more flexibility in relations with North Korea in the future,” Lee added.

The remarks from the conservative president known for his hard-line stance on the North reflects a possible change in South Korea’s policy toward the communist country with 1.2 million-strong military, whose next regime remains a mystery.

“We have encountered a major variant in inter-Korean relations and our policy on the North,” South Korea’s Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik has said at a parliamentary meeting, shortly after news of Kim Jong-il’s passing shocked South Korea and the world.

Initial indications coming out of Pyongyang suggest that the leadership transition to the late leader’s third son, Kim Jong-un, was moving forward.

North Korea’s official media showed the anointed heir presiding over funeral proceedings and receiving mourners. Very little is known about him, except that he is Swiss-educated and in his late 20s.

Experts say South Korea must be more flexible in dealing with North Korea under new leader, in order to gain more leverage over it and repair the strained ties.

“Despite the risk factor, it would be wiser for South Korean officials to look at the opportunities, shifting its stance on North Korea to strategic flexibility,” Lee Bong-jo, former unification minister, said.

Lee has taken a tougher stance on the North than his liberal predecessors, linking humanitarian aid to any progress in inter-Korean ties and multinational talks to persuade the North to stop its nuclear weapons programs. Since the two fatal attacks last year, the South Korean government had insisted on an apology from the North as a precondition for any humanitarian assistance or improvement in inter-Korean ties.

By Lee Sun-young

(milaya@heraldcorp.com)
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