South Korean Leader Plans New Outreach To the North

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, through an interpreter, explains his proposal for a liaison office in Pyongyang.Audio by Glenn Kessler/The Washington Post
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said yesterday that he will propose creating a permanent high-level diplomatic channel between North Korea and South Korea, including establishing the first liaison offices in the nations' capitals after nearly six decades of division.

The United States, since the Clinton administration, has urged Seoul to take this step, but this is the first time a South Korean president has officially proposed doing so. "Both North and South Korea must change their ways," Lee said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.

The South Korean president, who will stay at Camp David tonight for meetings with President Bush, said that North Korea is having trouble adjusting to the new tone set by his nascent administration on inter-Korean matters. Lee has linked improvements in the economic relationship between the two countries to progress on eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, a significant shift from his predecessor's policy.

Lee, 68, a former chief executive of the Hyundai Group and mayor of Seoul, has signaled his intent to work more closely with the United States, particularly on the six-nation negotiations to abolish North Korea's nuclear programs. U.S. officials have high hopes for greatly improving the sometimes rocky relationship with South Korea during Lee's tenure.

During the interview, he embraced the recent U.S. proposal to have North Korea "acknowledge" U.S. concerns and evidence about its apparent efforts to enrich uranium and its suspected nuclear trading with Syria, rather than provide its own dossier on such activities. Lee said that the solution -- criticized by U.S. conservatives -- would offer North Korea "an indirect way to being involved in these two activities," therefore allowing the stalled negotiations to move forward.

In a further hint of flexibility, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested to reporters yesterday that Washington may lift two key sanctions against North Korea even before the nation's assertions are verified. "Verification can take some time," Rice said.

Lee's plan for liaison offices appears to be his own effort to reach out to Pyongyang in a novel way. North Korea has hurled a series of what he calls "belligerent and bellicose" statements about the South Korean president since he took office 50 days ago. In South Korea, Lee has also come under fire for not laying out North Korea policy. After winning the presidency, he proposed -- but then abandoned -- a plan to eliminate the cabinet ministry devoted to unifying the countries.

Lee said his administration remains "calm and collected" about the North Korean attacks. To that end, he said, he wants to establish a permanent channel so the nations could have a regular dialogue, rather than intermittent contacts elicited by crises. He said that offices should be headed by officials with direct access to the leaders of each country.

"Between the two Koreas we need to always have dialogue going on," Lee said. "In the past, we had dialogue between the two Koreas whenever there was a need, and then when there wasn't a need, the dialogue would close. I don't think that is helpful in the situation."

Lee appeared not to place conditions on this proposal, except he mentioned it in the context of the nuclear negotiations. "The purpose is while we try to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, at the same time we could also open up dialogue channels with North Korea to discuss and manage the inter-Korea relationship," he said.

Lee's comments were aimed at both Washington and the domestic audience back home.

"This is a proposal that very much reflects the center of South Korean opinion," said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. "I think he also wanted to make it clear here in Washington that he has not abandoned engagement with North Korea, that this is not going to be a return to some Cold War past." Lee wants to show that "he is ready to engage, to talk to the North, even to provide humanitarian aid, but a broader approach to the North, including investment, will have to wait for a solution to the nuclear issue."

Lee, who earned the nickname "Bulldozer" as a corporate executive, wore a bold green tie and, through an interpreter, spoke confidently about his views on a range of issues, including the food shortage in North Korea, the U.S. economy and Chinese influence in North Korea. He jokingly noted that the Dow Jones industrial average rose more than 250 points on Wednesday after he rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Lee shrugged off concerns that a free trade agreement negotiated between South Korea and the United States is doomed because the Democratic presidential candidates have opposed it. "I, myself, who recently went through presidential elections, understand that during presidential elections you really are given no choice but take on positions that will benefit your prospects for becoming elected," he said. If either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected, the new president "will look into the facts" and make the right decision, he added.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company