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2008/11/20 10:29 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 30 (November 20, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

President Lee Myung-bak Supports Obama's Idea of Meeting Kim Jong-il

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Nov. 16 expressed support for the idea of incoming U.S. President Barack Obama meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

   "It would be better for President-elect Obama to meet with Chairman Kim Jong-il personally if it is helpful in ensuring North Korea's abandonment of its nuclear weapons," Lee said at a news conference in Washington.

   Kim officially holds the title of the chairman of the North's powerful National Defense Commission, which is constitutionally empowered to control the military, as well as economic and most other domestic affairs, although the North's ceremonial state head is Kim Yong-nam, president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

   President Lee, who flew into Washington on Nov. 14 to attend the first economic summit of the world's 20 biggest economies on ways to cope with the ongoing global financial crisis, is set to leave for Brasilia later in the day en route to Lima for an annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

   Last month at a presidential candidate debate, Obama dismissed Republican rival John McCain's criticism that it is naive to meet with Kim without preconditions, saying Bush's reluctance to deal directly with North Korea resulted in the North's detonation of its first nuclear device in 2006 and the quadrupling of its nuclear weapons to eight by the end of Bush's eight years in office.

   Reports said that Obama may send a prominent figure as his special envoy to Pyongyang soon after his inauguration on Jan. 20 to prepare for a possible visit there himself, in a bid to make a breakthrough in the on-and-off multilateral nuclear talks that began in 2003.

   Lee dismissed concerns that the proposed meeting may alienate South Korea in the crucial North Korean nuclear talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

   "We have a perfect relationship with the U.S., and as you know more deeply about the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. you don't have to worry about it," he said.

   Lee noted that Obama called him just days after his election in early November, and affirmed that he will consult South Korea before dealing with North Korea.

   "President-elect Obama made such a confirmation even though I did not make any such proposal, and the pledge is much clearer than the Bush administration," he said.

   Lee, a conservative, pro-U.S. former business executive, has been maintaining close relationship with Bush since his inauguration in February, although Lee's liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun had often been at odds with Bush on North Korea and other issues of concern.

   In April, Lee became the first South Korean president to be invited to the Camp David presidential retreat, and he thereafter resumed imports of U.S. beef for the first time in five years despite weeks of street rallies over fears of mad cow disease.

   Obama's election has triggered concerns in South Korea that Lee might have a difficult time with liberal Obama, echoing Roh's awkward relationship with Bush.

   "Our national interest is resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and eventually achieving national reunification without nuclear weapons in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula," Lee said. "Before national unification, peaceful coexistence is important."
Lee has urged North Korea to enter international society so South Korea can play a central role in helping North Korea overcome its food shortage and achieve economic development, saying, "North Korea has even greater potential than China for rapid economic development."