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2009/08/20 10:35 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 68 (August 20, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

President Lee Unveils Peace Initiative for the Korean Peninsula

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule on Aug. 15 as an opportunity to urge North Korea to forsake its nuclear ambition, proposing bilateral talks on ways to reduce tension between the two Koreas, a reduction in their conventional weapons and the dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

   In a speech marking the 64th anniversary of the liberation day, the president proposed the divided Koreas begin dialogue to find ways "for North Korea to defend itself" and for the co-prosperity of both countries. Lee said Seoul is also willing to convince the international community to help develop the impoverished North and enhance the quality of life for the North Korean people if Pyongyang decides to abandon its nuclear ambitions. North Korea is currently under tough U.N. sanctions for its second atomic test conducted May 25.

   Lee also unveiled what he called a peace initiative for the Korean Peninsula. "Nuclear weapons only aggravate the North's future, instead of promising the country's safety," he said in an address at the annual ceremony held at Sejong Arts Center in central Seoul. "I hope North Korea can find ways to protect itself and to bring prosperity to both the North and the South. If North Korea shows such resolution, the South Korean government will proceed with a new peace plan for the Korean Peninsula."

   He further vowed to set up a high-level meeting between the two Koreas to establish a common economic community in the coming years and pursue inter-Korean projects with regard to the economy, education, finance, infrastructure building and quality of life in collaboration with other nations and international institutions.

   President Lee's proposal for establishing a new peace initiative on the Korean Peninsula is a move that would replace the long-standing Korean armistice with a permanent peace treaty. The two Koreas technically remain at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended only with the armistice, not a peace treaty.

   The president also said that the two Koreas must begin a dialogue on reduction of conventional weapons, noting their arms race since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War has prevented both sides from developing their economies to their fullest potential. "If the South and North Korea reduce their arms and troops, they will be able to save enormous amounts of money and this will also help them develop their economies. Now is the time for the South and the North to meet and discuss such issues," Lee said.

   North Korea is said to have deployed nearly 70 percent of its 1.1 million armed forces to within a few miles of the inter-Korean border, while massive amounts of artillery there also pose a daily threat to nearly half of the 48 million people living in the Seoul metropolitan area. "I make it clear that our government is ready to discuss and work with North Korea on any issue between the two Koreas at any time and at any level," he said.

   Lee's remarks came at a time when there have been glimmers of hope for improved inter-Korean relations that have been stalled since nuclear and missile tests by the North.

   North Korea, with its moribund economy, is currently under strict U.N. Security Council sanctions because of a series of rule-violating actions, including missile and nuclear tests. It subsequently quit multilateral talks on its nuclear program.

   Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a recent trip to the North to talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in a successful bid to free two U.S. journalists.

   While the South Korean president made proposals to the North, Pyongyang has not given any positive response yet. Instead, the North's main newspaper emphasized the need for the country's Songun or military-first politics.

   "The DPRK (North Korea) led by Kim Jong-il is an invincible socialist power fully demonstrating its dignity and might thanks to Songun," the country's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in an article. Songun, or the military-first politics is the backbone of the North Korean leader's ruling guidelines, under which the impoverished country is pushing to arm itself with nuclear weapons.

   The paper also called on North Koreans to be faithful to their leader, saying that he is making progress in leading the country to becoming a "powerful, prosperous" country by 2012, the birth centennial of the country's late founding president, Kim Il-sung.

   Two days later, President Lee said Aug. 17 that the government's North Korea policy linking assistance to denuclearization remains unchanged. In a Cabinet meeting held on the first day of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise ― a joint military exercise with the United States to protect South Korea from enemy attacks ― Lee emphasized that North Korea should give up its nuclear ambitions and move to reduce arms before receiving assistance from South Korea and other nations.

   "Our unshakable North Korea policy will eventually make North Korea change and invite support from the international community," the president said. The Seoul government will continue to implement a "consistent, comprehensive and flexible" policy toward North Korea to persuade the neighbor to scrap its nuclear program and join the global community, he said.

   Lee's comments come as a reaffirmation of his "Vision 3000" policy, which links improvements in the economic relationship between the two Koreas to nuclear disarmament, observers say.

   The policy calls to help boost North Korea's per capita national income to $3,000 within a decade, by providing economic assistance in cooperation with the international community on the condition that Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has rejected Lee's Vision 3000 initiative as an insult and has described it as a "criminal" campaign against its communist regime.

   North Korea experts viewed President Lee's proposal of holding inter-Korean talks to discuss issues concerning the reduction of conventional weapons favorably, saying it was an essential part of peace building.

   But they said that Lee's new peace initiative would only be complete if and when the President provides details of what incentives South Korea can give to its northern neighbor in exchange for denuclearization.

   Some analysts were skeptical about Lee's proposal, saying it was not timely as arms control talks can only be realized with mutual trust. They argued that there is no trust and therefore inter-Korean talks to deal with the matter were unlikely to take place.

   Despite this skepticism, professor Ryoo Kihl-jae of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said that Lee's remark on the matter was definitely a positive step. "Lee's addressing the arms control issue in the speech was timely because the reduction of conventional weapons is as important as the dismantlement of nuclear stockpiles for peace building," Ryoo said.

   The North Korea expert said the President would have been better if he had addressed more concrete and specific measures regarding what South Korea could do to encourage the socialist country to go ahead with action to dismantle its nuclear program.

   Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said in an interview that President Lee sent a clear and positive message to the North by unveiling a more detailed plan than before. "Lee showed that he was willing to have dialogue with North Korea," he said.

   But Cheong added it was unlikely for the North to welcome Lee's proposal or give an immediate positive reaction to it, partly because the nuclear program will be resolved mainly through Washington-Pyongyang negotiations, not inter-Korean talks.

   Analysts remain pessimistic about whether the North would respond positively to Lee's proposal, pointing out that his proposal for dialogue is still based on the condition that North Korea first give up its nuclear ambitions.

   Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, noted Pyongyang may offer a reconciliatory gesture in the near future, but said it is unlikely to take active measures to improve inter-Korean ties.

   He agreed that the South Korean president's call for dialogue marked a significant change from his previous stance, but said his offer lacked what Pyongyang has long demanded as a precondition for any serious talks -- a pledge to honor and implement past agreements between the two Koreas.