Both Koreas show willingness to begin ‘new era’ in relations

South Korea’s president has urged North Korea to use the transition of leadership after Kim Jong Il’s death to usher in a new era of peace on the tense Korean peninsula as he warned the North against any provocations.

Lee Myung-bak reached out in his New Year’s message to the North Korea, now led by Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, saying he has high hopes for a breakthrough this year in negotiations over the North’s nuclear program.

However, Mr Lee warned in yesterday’s statement that Seoul would respond sternly to any North Korean provocations. Relations between the rival Koreas dropped to their lowest point in decades following the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and North Korea’s shelling of a front-line island later that year.

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Mr Lee’s comments in a nationally televised speech came a day after the North called on its citizens to rally around Kim Jong Un and transform themselves into his “human shields.”

Mr Lee said Kim Jong Il’s death is “portending a sea change” for the fractured Korean peninsula.

“If North Korea comes forward with a sincere attitude, it will be possible for us to open a new era,” he said.

North and South remain divided by a heavily fortified border, and their navies have traded deadly fire at their disputed maritime border over the years. After a decade of warming ties, relations plummeted in 2008 after Mr Lee took office with a firm policy of linking aid to the impoverished North to its commitment to dismantle its nuclear programme. Most joint business ventures and other civilian, humanitarian and cultural exchanges were suspended.

Mr Lee said the Korean peninsula is at a turning point with Kim’s death, and “new opportunities always emerge amid such changes.”

His speech shows South Korea “has no intention” of provoking North Korea, said Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Yesterday, state media in the North accused Mr Lee of plotting to shake up the North by temporarily placing his troops on high alert after Kim Jong Il’s death.

However, in one of his first roles as North Korea’s leader, the younger Kim met briefly in Pyongyang last week with a former South Korean first lady who was leading private mourning delegations paying respects to Kim Jong Il – a sign he is open to reaching out again to the South Koreans.

North Korea’s New Year’s message on Sunday did not include the country’s routine criticism of America and avoided mention of the country’s nuclear ambitions, a sign the North may be willing to continue talks with US.

North Korea also repeated a call in the message for implementing past agreements for the Koreas to cooperate on potentially lucrative economic projects.

Mr Lee said negotiations can resume if North Korea halts its nuclear activities.