SEOUL, March 1 – South Korea’s president today urged North Korea to return to talks but chances of dialogue appear slim as tensions rise again on the divided peninsula.
The call comes as North Korea expressed outrage at this week’s military exercises by South Korea and its US ally, and anger at Seoul for dropping leaflets across the border with details of the unrest sweeping through the Middle East.
“We are prepared for dialogue with North Korea at any time and with an open mind,” Lee Myung-bak (picture) said during a speech marking the anniversary of a 1919 anti-Japanese uprising.
He reiterated a previous pledge that the South was willing to help its impoverished neighbour.
Tension between the two rose to its highest since the 1950-53 Korean War, after the South accused the North of sinking one of its naval ships and later bombarding a South Korean island in the sea off the peninsula’s west coast.
Pyongyang denies any involvement in the sinking and accuses Seoul of goading it into launching the later artillery attack.
An attempt at reconciliation last month came to nothing after low-level military talks between the two sides collapsed.
North Korea, which even in good years cannot produce enough to feed its people, has been scouring the world for food aid.
But officials in the South says it may this time be trying to build up stockpiles rather than ensure food is distributed to a hungry population.
Its international pariah status means that North Korea has become heavily reliant on China, the only major power it can count on as an ally.
China’s Foreign Ministry expressed concern today about the South Korean-US drills.
“The current situation on the peninsula is still sensitive and complex. All parties should take a responsible attitude and do more to enhance mutual trust, ease tensions and maintain regional peace and stability,” spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing.
“The Yellow Sea is a very sensitive region,” Yu said, referring to the sea in which last year’s clashes occurred. “We hope the United States takes the situation into consideration and contributes more to maintaining regional peace and stability.”
A Japanese newspaper reported that the North’s leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, was likely to make his first official visit to China this month.
The youngest son of leader Kim Jong-il could go to Bejing after the end of China’s National People’s Congress on March 14 for talks with President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping, the Sankei newspaper reported, citing a source close to the two sides.
He is likely to ask China for large-scale economic aid during the visit, the Sankei added.
Little is known about Kim Jong-un other than that he is in his late twenties and was educated in Switzerland. He was appointed to key military and government positions last year, suggesting that he is the chosen successor to his father.
An official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Kim Jong-un’s visit to China is a possibility because China has invited the North’s “new leadership” for a visit at an appropriate time.
But the South is not aware of any indications that such a visit is imminent, the official said. – Reuters