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2010/02/24 08:00 KST
Lee marks 3rd year in office with focus on N. Korean nuclear issue

SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will mark the second anniversary of his administration Thursday with a policy that has steadfastly linked large-scale assistance for North Korea with progress in its denuclearization.

   Lee was sworn in with a call for North Korea to give up its nuclear programs, holding out the prospect of massive economic assistance for the impoverished neighbor in exchange for denuclearization.

   Inter-Korean relations chilled quickly, however, as Pyongyang strongly protested Lee's decision to review past summit deals that his predecessors signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Those deals call for huge aid projects for the North, and Lee wanted to make sure that the agreements are in line with international efforts to end the North's nuclear programs.

   Their relationship further plummeted when a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a guard at a North Korean mountain resort in July 2008. The tours to Mount Kumgang on the east coast remain suspended to this day, while tension persists off the west coast after the North declared South Korean border areas there as its own.

   Despite the North's harsh rhetoric against the South, the Lee government has refused to buckle, pressing the communist neighbor to see the new administration as different from its liberal-leaning predecessors, accused of bending under pressure from the North.

   "The North tried to tame the new South Korean government after it had grown used to the conciliatory engagement policy of Seoul's predecessors," Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea professor at Korea University, said. "What President Lee has done is to change that perception. The relationship is now far more reciprocal."

   It was North Korea that first reached out to the other side after a year-and-a-half of high tensions.

   In August last year, Pyongyang sent a high-level delegation to Seoul to pay tribute at the funeral of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a move seen as an olive branch from the North after U.N. sanctions, slapped on the country for its nuclear test, exacerbated its economic woes.

   Since then, North Korea has agreed to resume temporary reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and offered talks on cross-border ventures, even though it has mixed its peace offensive with provocative gestures.

   A North Korean naval boat fired toward a South Korean patrol ship in November, prompting a gunfight near the western sea border. The North last month rekindled tension there by firing hundreds of artillery shots along its side of the border.

   Despite the militant moves, analysts say the North will continue to reach out to the South, as it is in dire need of outside assistance to address its deepening economic difficulties.

   Officials here hope the internal predicament will eventually force Pyongyang to embrace the comprehensive aid package that Seoul offered to dismantle the North's nuclear arms programs once and for all.

   "For decades, North Korea has tried to bypass Seoul and talk directly with Washington," James Schoff, Director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Massachusetts-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said in an e-mailed commentary.

   "After all, the fundamental threat to peace in Korea is not the North's nuclear program per se; rather, it is the North's unwillingness to accept the South as its primary partner for peace-making. This can't go on," he said.

   Kim Tae-hyo, a top national security advisor to Lee, said Tuesday that making North Korea recognize South Korea as a serious partner in the nuclear talks is the foremost condition for the earnest improvement of relations between the countries.

   "Full-fledged economic cooperation depends on how North and South Korea together open a breakthrough in the nuclear issue," he told a forum.

   Citing a survey that said 84 percent of South Koreans back the "grand bargain" proposed by Lee, Kim said his government will continue to pursue its existing North Korea policy unless Pyongyang "makes the big decision" to discuss its nuclear programs with Seoul.

   Kim denied the Seoul government has been fixated on raising the nuclear issue with Pyongyang, but argued that North Korea's nuclear ambitions pose the greatest threat to inter-Korean relations.

   "Our government has been (flexible) and will continue to be so," he said, expressing hope that "results will clearly appear in the third year."

   "The question is how we can take the lead creatively in holding dialogue with North Korea and the international community," he said, alluding to the other members of stalled six-party nuclear talks: the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

   Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea researcher from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, proposed that the two Koreas first build trust in each other by facilitating military talks on ways to scale down their military build-up along the demarcation line.

   "With enough trust built between the sides, they could eventually begin a regular dialogue channel solely devoted to implementing steps to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula," he said.

   North Korea said earlier this week it wants to hold military talks with South Korea next week on easing border restrictions that have hindered transportation and communications in and out of the joint industrial complex in Kaesong. Seoul, which had proposed an earlier date, has yet to accept the proposal.

   South and North Korea share one of the world's most heavily guarded borders decades after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire.