"I am trying to help North Korea embrace the free world and open up so that its economy will get on its own feet," Lee said at a meeting with hundreds of Korean community leaders from around the world. "Offering assistance is important, but what is more important is to help it stand on its own. It should learn from China."
North Korea has relied on foreign aid to help feed its 24 million population since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s. But Pyongyang has refused to open up to revive the broken economy out of fears that outside influence could lead to the collapse of the totalitarian regime.
The North's economic situation deteriorated further after the South halted unconditional aid when Lee took office in early 2008 with a pledge to link assistance to progress in efforts to end North Korea's nuclear programs.
Pyongyang sought to force a change in that policy with a series of threats and provocations, including nuclear and missile tests as well as last year's two deadly attacks on the South. The attacks sent tensions on the divided peninsula soaring, but South Korea has remained undaunted.
"The more difficult the situation the inter-Korean relations are in, the (greater) hope we can see," Lee said at the meeting. "I will continue with a consistent policy so that we can move ahead on the right path that we should take."
Earlier this month, North Korea claimed that South Korea bent the hard-line policy and begged for summit talks when the sides met secretly last month. South Korea rejected the claim as groundless, saying that the meeting was aimed at seeking Pyongyang's apology for last year's attacks.
About 300 Korean community leaders attended the meeting with Lee.
They have gathered in Seoul for an annual convention aimed at strengthening unity with their homeland and boosting networking among their communities. The four-day conference kicked off earlier in the day.
About 7 million Koreans live abroad, with the majority living in China, Russia and the United States.