BY STEVE HERMAN – South Korea’s president is predicting “big changes” on the peninsula following last month’s death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
President Lee Myung-bak, delivering his nationally televised New Year’s address Monday, spoke of a turning point that he hopes can lead to progress.
Lee says South Korea is ready to resolve security concerns on the peninsula and provide assistance to revive impoverished North Korea’s economy. But that can only happen, he explains, if Pyongyang suspends its nuclear development and an agreement can be reached at six-party talks.
The international talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program have been on hiatus for several years.
The South Korean president also reiterated a warning that Seoul will respond strongly to any further provocation from Pyongyang.
Tension on the peninsula soared to its highest level in decades after two fatal incidents last year that the South blamed on the North: the sinking of a coastal naval vessel and the shelling of an island near disputed frontier waters in the Yellow Sea.
North Korea is maintaining its harsh criticism of the South Korean president. The latest commentary in a party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, demands Lee “kneel down and apologize” for his stance towards the North.
Pyongyang does not have diplomatic relations with either Seoul or Washington. The two Koreas never signed a peace treaty following their civil war six decades ago. But during 2011 North Korea was engaged in separate one-on-one preliminary talks with both South Korea and the United States.
Those discussions, prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, raised hopes there might be a resumption soon of the long-stalled six-way talks about North Korea’s nuclear programs.
But the immediate priority in Pyongyang appears to be on securing an orderly transition to a third generation of the Kim family.
The announcer on North Korea’ central television Monday requests the people follow, politically and militarily, the new supreme commander, Kim Jong Un.
North Korea’s New Year’s message, carried in the newspapers the previous day, urged everyone to be “human shields” to defend Kim “unto death.”
Kim, who is under 30 years of age, has yet to be bestowed all of the key leadership titles of his late father. Besides being officially deemed supreme commander of the military and supreme leader of the country’s only political party, he is now referred to as the “Great Successor.”
North Korea’s news agency says Kim, on New Year’s Day, was already at work. He paid his respects at a mausoleum to his father and grandfather – Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder – and inspected a military tank division.