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(News Focus) Lee's speech hints at no change in N. Korea policy
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's offer of a long-term inter-Korean reunification strategy and a special tax to fund the ensuing astronomical costs is unlikely to help warm the two Koreas' frozen relations, and it may rather trigger a dispute with the North at a time when it is sensitive about its regime security, analysts said Sunday.

   Addressing the nation to mark the 65th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonization, Lee proposed his country adopt a "unification tax" and pursue a three-step reunification strategy that would create peace, an open economy and a collective ideology.

   South Korea's presidents have often used Liberation Day speeches to unveil new policies on North Korea and other major issues. Lee's speech was also closely watched as it was meant to summarize his policy direction in the latter half of his single five-year tenure that begins on Aug. 25.

   "Reunification will definitely happen," he said. "It is therefore our duty to start thinking about real and substantive ways to prepare for reunification such as the adoption of a unification tax."

   Lee also gave specifics on his vision for reunification with North Korea in the televised address, but it lacked a concrete plan on how South Korea will normalize relations with its communist neighbor, signaling that his administration will stick to a tough stance.

   Inter-Korean ties are at their lowest ebb in recent years following the deadly sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March. The South accused the North of sinking the vessel with a torpedo attack.

   The president made it clear that his three-stage reunification plan is based on the premise that North Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons program.

   That is why analysts view it as standing in line with Lee's "Denuclearization, Opening and 3,000" project, in which the South would assist the North in trebling its per capita income of US$3,000 over a decade in exchange for its denuclearization and market opening. Pyongyang has already rejected the idea.

   Lee's aides said he wanted to remind the Korean people of the need for reunification as it would mean genuine liberation from Japan's colonial rule that led to the division of a capitalist South and a communist North.

   "And (Lee's comments) also intended to urge North Korea to make a decision to improve relations with the South and accelerate our internal preparations (for reunification)," Yim Tae-hee, presidential chief of staff, told reporters.

   Lee stopped short of elaborating on the scale of the tax and how to levy it, passing relevant discussions onto experts and politicians. Heated debates are expected in the process.

   While North Korea has not issued a formal response yet to Lee's new proposal, analysts here were skeptical that it would provide an immediate breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

   "North Korea may misunderstand the reference of a unification tax at a time when South-North relations are extremely bad," Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Dongguk University, said. "North Korea may protest in the belief that South Korea is considering a sudden change (in North Korean leadership) and seeking the absorption of (the North)."

   Apparently mindful of such worries, Lee's office, Cheong Wa Dae, said in a press release that the proposal for a unification tax did not come in consideration of a specific condition in the North and that it is intended as a long-term investment to prepare for reunification.

   The professor said the president's speech seems limited in order to convince North Korea to avert its confrontational attitude, and no fresh change is expected in the inter-Korean relationship for the time being.

   Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, also said, "A prudent approach toward a unification tax is necessary in the current confrontational phase in inter-Korean relations. Discussions on the matter are needed but controversy over the timing is expected."

   The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) dismissed the president's offer of the tax as pointless and called for him to implement the two inter-Korean summit agreements of his liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

   "(President Lee) has yet to deviate from a Cold War-era mindset," DP spokesman Cho Young-taek said.

   The ruling Grand National Party (GNP), however, welcomed Lee's proposal as "very realistic."

   "We expect broad discussions in society overall, including the National Assembly," GNP spokesman Ahn Hyoung-hwan said.

   lcd@yna.co.kr
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