South Korean President Lee Myung Bak said today the two Koreas are at a "turning point" following the death of Kim Jong Il, Yonhap news agency reported.
In a televised new year address, Lee Myung Bak said he saw a "window of opportunity" for better relations with the North – but warned Seoul would "strongly respond" if Pyongyang's new leaders proved to be aggressive.
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North Korea's military has warned the world to expect "no change" under the Dear Leader's son and successor, Kim Jong Un.
Yet according to the New York Times, Lee Myung Bak said he was hopeful of the opposite:
"A big change is expected in the situation on the Korean Peninsula and north-east Asia following the death of Chairman Kim Jong Il," Mr. Lee said.
"The situation on the Korean Peninsula is now entering a new turning point. But there should be a new opportunity, amid changes and uncertainty."
In the past, the Times said, the North has used attacks on the South as a means of boosting internal unity and buffing new leaders' military credentials, prompting fears of fresh aggression as Kim Jong Un assumes power. Yesterday, North Korean state media called on the country's people to act as "human shields" to defend their new ruler.
Lee Myung Bak said today he would "thoroughly maintain national security as long as there is a possibility of provocation by the North," the BBC reported, promising to "strongly respond" to any attacks.
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Lee added it was up to the North to "show its attitude of sincerity" to allow both Koreas to make use of what he called the "window of opportunity" in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death. Seoul would be willing to resume international talks and provide economic aid if Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear program, he said.
According to the Associated Press, Lee's decision to link aid to nuclear disarmament has long been a source of anger for the North, which has been highly critical of Lee since he took office in 2008.
Since Kim Jong Il's death, authorities in the North have issued a series of statements slamming the South's government, in particular for its decision to ban its citizens from traveling to Pyongyang for the funeral.
On Saturday, the North's reunification committee said there was no hope for an improvement in relations while the South was governed by Lee, whom it described as "the worst type anti-reunification element, traitor and pro-US fascist maniac," according to Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.
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