South Korea said yesterday that it wants better relations with North Korea under its new leader, despite Pyongyang’s fierce criticism of Seoul since the death of longtime North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il.
“The ball is in North Korea’s court now,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said, recalling that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had seen a “window of opportunity” for dialogue after almost two years of high tensions.
The communist state proclaimed Kim Jong-un as “great successor” to his father, Kim Jong-il, who died aged 69 on Dec. 17, but warned the world its policy remains unchanged.
In a statement it vowed never to deal “with the Lee Myung-bak group of traitors” and threatened unspecified retaliation for what it called insults by Seoul during mourning for Kim.
South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik, who handles cross-border ties, said yesterday the North “seems to be focused on solidifying the new leadership under difficult conditions,” but added: “We see no major problems in the process.”
The untested Kim Jong-un, in his late 20s, had barely three years to prepare for leadership of the impoverished nation, which suffers severe food shortages and is under international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.
US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell — the first US diplomat to make a Northeast Asian tour since news of Kim’s death — said he had urged China to stress the need for restraint to its North Korean allies.
Some analysts believe Kim Jong-un might be tempted to launch limited cross-border attacks to bolster his leadership credentials and rally his people against a perceived enemy.
Foreign Minister Kim said the North’s statement had contained strong criticism, “but I do not think we should respond to every single statement they release.”
The North in the past had held talks with the South despite such comments, he told a briefing.
Ties have been icy since the South accused the North of responsibility for two deadly border incidents in 2010.
Yu said separately that the South should play a leading role to help the North’s new leadership “make good choices about the future and bring about peace, prosperity and eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.”
His ministry said it would set up a fund this year to help meet the potentially huge costs of eventual reunification.
Officially, both North and South are committed to reuniting after more than six decades of separation.
However, the impoverished North accuses the vastly richer South of trying to absorb it and destroy its system, a charge denied by Lee.
“South Korea neither seeks to achieve reunification through absorption nor to make the North collapse, and will never try to do so,” Yonhap news agency quoted the president as saying.
Campbell arrived in South Korea from China, the North’s sole major ally and its crucial economic prop.
He said he asked Beijing to consult closely with Washington on developments in the North.
“We also urge China to make clear the importance of restraint by the new North Korean leadership,” Campbell said.