South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak urged rival North Korea to use the transition of leadership after Kim Jong Il's death as a “turning point” to usher in a new era of peace on the tense Korean peninsula, even as he warned the North against any provocations.
President Lee reached out in his New Year's message to the North Korean government now led by Kim Jong Un, saying he has high hopes for a breakthrough this year in negotiations over the North's nuclear program.
However, President Lee warned that Seoul would respond sternly to any North Korean provocations. He vowed that South Korea would maintain a "watertight defense posture" to deal with any North Korean provocations. "If any aggression occurs, we will respond with strength," he said.
Mr Lee said Kim Jong Il's death is "portending a sea change" for the fractured Korean peninsula. "If North Korea comes forward with a sincere attitude, it will be possible for us to work together to open a new era," he added.
Mr Lee's comments show optimism despite continued provocation from the North. Pyongyang has regularly excoriated the conservative South Korean leader ever since he ended the South's "Sunshine policy" of reconciliation and cut off all food aid to the North after his inauguration in 2008. The relationship between the two nations had appeared to be as icy as ever after the death of the secretive state's eccentric but brutal ruler, Kim Jong Il on 17 December.
The Korean peninsula remains in a technical state of conflict because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North and South remain divided by a heavily fortified border, and their navies have traded deadly fire at their disputed maritime border over the years.
After a decade of warming ties, relations plummeted in 2008 after Mr Lee took office with a firm policy of linking aid to the impoverished North to its commitment to dismantle its nuclear program. Most joint business ventures and other civilian, humanitarian and cultural exchanges were suspended.
Relations between the rival Koreas dropped to their lowest point in decades following the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and North Korea's deadly shelling of a front-line island.
Analysts say that President Lee’s speech shows South Korea "has no intention" of provoking North Korea. Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul observed that President’s Lee’s comments could spell a warming of relations.
Kim Jong-un is expected to worsen inter-Korean relations as a distraction that will help his internal power building,” said Yoon Deok Min, a professor of North Korean studies at South Korea’s state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “Lee is trying to prevent another provocation by reassuring the North with a repeat of his conditional willingness to talk.” Professor Yoon added.
Report: South Korea’s Lee Says ‘New Era’ Is Possible After North Calls Him Traitor[Bloomberg, 1 Jan 2012]
Report: Seoul Sees Opportunity for Better Ties with North Korea [VOA, 1 Jan 2012]