In a major policy shift, Lee Myung-bak (photo, from dailylife.com), South Korea’s president, has proposed reviving direct talks with North Korea. He told the parliament that he was willing to carry out previous bilateral summit accords and provide the impoverished North with food aid.
News that a South Korean woman had been shot dead during a tourist trip to the North has marred the apparent softening of Mr Lee’s hardline stance.
It also came on day two of six-party talks on North Korea in Beijing.
The negociations gather representatives from the US, China, Russia and Japan as well as the two Koreas, which are looking for an agreement on ways the North’s recent declaration of its nuclear activities can be verified.
President Lee’s previous hardline stance towards the South’s communist northern neighbour had left Seoul sidelined in these talks, said correspondents.
Besides, all that, the president has been shaken by protests and crises at home. His approval ratings have declined steeply in the five months of his term.
“Full dialogue between the two Koreas must resume”, the president told the National Assembly in Seoul, which after weeks of delay is finally convening, amid a domestic political crisis over US beef imports.
His government was “willing to engage in serious consultations on how to implement the inter-Korean agreements made so far”, he said, including summit pacts reached in 2000 and 2007 by his predecessors.
President Lee took office in February and drew accusations from the North saying he was a “traitor”, and US “sycophant”, when he turned away from the Sunshine Policy of engagement of past presidents.
And correspondents say that the North cut off dialogue when South Korea’s president suggested Seoul would review previous summit accords signed by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The president also appeared on Friday to backtrack on earlier pledges to link the provision of economic aid to North Korea to progress on the nuclear issue.
He said that Seoul “is ready to co-operate in efforts to help relieve the food shortage in the North as well as alleviate the pain of the North Korean people”.
In the same time, in Beijing, multilateral talks continues over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
After the North, following a month of delay, finally submitted an account of its nuclear activities, the talks began again on Thursday.
Christopher Hill, US negotiator, said Thursday’s discussions of steps required to verify the information submitted by North Korea had got off to a “good start”.
Officials said that delivering the energy aid promised to the North in response to its co-operation on the nuclear front will also be included in the discussions. The North complains it has received only 40% of the total aid agreed.
In Seoul, president Lee’s legislative programme has been paralysed by a weeks-long boycott by opposition deputies. But as parliament finally convened, Mr Lee’s new pledges came.
During the session, he said he would press ahead with his agenda, and submit “about 200 bills concerning deregulation”.
According to correspondents, Mr Lee’s plans to deregulate the economy, introduce tax cuts and reforms pension systems could meet significant opposition.