President focuses on improving North ties

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President focuses on improving North ties

Declaring his desire for a turnaround in relations with North Korea, President Lee Myung-bak made a proposal yesterday for the establishment of an inter-Korean office to have talks on a regular basis.

In his new year’s address, President Lee expressed his hope for a thaw in the frozen inter-Korean relations, urging North Korea to give up its nuclear arms programs and return to the path of reconciliation.

Lee also said the government will talk with Pyongyang to begin a recovery project to bring back remains of South Korean soldiers killed during the Korean War and buried in the North.

“The government will endeavor to improve relations with North Korea,” Lee said. “We urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks as soon as possible. This will ensure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and open up real cooperation between the two Koreas.”

The Blue House later provided an official translation of the speech, broadcast live nationwide earlier in the morning.

“For this, there is a need to establish a body that will allow inter-Korean dialogue to take place at all times. I hope that North Korea will engage in genuine dialogue, opening up the road to cooperation,” Lee said.

President Lee’s remarks on North Korea came as Pyongyang hinted at its willingness to improve ties with Seoul by promoting a “peaceful Korean Peninsula” in a new year’s joint editorial. Conspicuously missing in this year’s editorial, issued on Saturday, were the North’s usual criticism and threats toward the South.

Shortly after his speech, Lee had tea time with journalists at the Blue House’s press office and explained that he had made a similar offer to the North in the past. The president said he renewed the proposal once again because the situation between the two Koreas has changed.

“I made the proposal once when I had an interview with The Washington Post [two years ago],” Lee said. “At the time, the two Koreas used to curse at each other, so my offer was a pre-emptive proposal, but the time is more appropriate now to talk about it again.”

During his visit to the United States last April, Lee proposed that permanent liaison offices be opened in the capital cities of the two Koreas. The North quickly rejected the idea, calling it “shallow” and “anti-unification.”

Asked if the two Koreas will establish routine senior-level contacts, Lee said, “If [the liaison offices] are established, then that will also be possible.”

The president also said it was a positive change that North Korea has refrained from condemning the South in its latest new year’s editorial.

Noting that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, Lee also said “we will hold talks with North Korea so that we can bring back the remains of the soldiers who died during the Korean War and who are buried in North Korea.”

According to the Defense Ministry, about 137,899 South Korean soldiers were killed and another 32,838 were listed as missing in action or prisoners of war during the Korean War. The ministry estimated that about 39,000 of them were believed to be buried in the North, while another 13,000 are inside the demilitarized zone. Washington had operated a similar program since 1996.

In addition to his vision for inter-Korean ties, Lee also announced the three ways he will steer the nation this year: “First, global diplomacy will be further enhanced. Second, reforms for the advancement of the nation will be further accelerated. And third, policies in line with centrist pragmatism will be continuously implemented.”

In his address, Lee said economic recovery, education reform, balanced national development, advancement of Korean political culture and all-directional diplomacy will be his government’s five key tasks for this year.

Emphasizing that the way to achieve economic recovery is “to create new and better job opportunities,” Lee said his administration will devote its resources and determination to creating jobs.

Lee also stressed that the domestic and international affairs of a country are not separate things, promising to strive further for global diplomacy.

“Economy and diplomacy cannot be considered separately,” he said. “[Korea] has learned an invaluable lesson over the past two years. Successful diplomatic engagements in the international arena have a decisive significance in ensuring a brighter future for Korea.”

Lee said that through hosting the Group of 20 summit in Seoul this year, the nation will contribute to laying the foundations for a new global financial order.

Noting that Korea’s traditional alliance with the United States is stronger than ever, Lee also said he will work to bolster Korea’s ties with China and Japan this year. Korea will give special attention to diplomacy with African nations, Lee said, adding, “We will also take part in maintaining peace in Afghanistan.”

By Ser Myo-ja []

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