South Korea’s president says he is willing to meet North Korea’s leader this year to discuss its nuclear weapons programme despite a recent flare-up in border tensions.
President Lee Myung-bak made the comment in an interview aired on Friday, as North Korea fired artillery for a third day during military exercises near its disputed western sea border with the South.
The firing, which on Wednesday prompted return artillery fire by the South, has caused no reported casualties or damage. It comes amid mixed signs from the communist North, which has recently appeared more keen to engage the South in dialogue after ballistic missile and nuclear tests last year drew U.N. sanctions, while still threatening its rival.
Mr. Lee’s two liberal predecessors held talks with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il in 2000 and 2007. Mr. Lee has taken a tougher approach towards North Korea since taking office in 2008, worsening bilateral relations, but has indicated several times he is willing to meet Mr. Kim.
“I am always ready to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Il,” Mr. Lee told the BBC, according to a text released by his office.
“There is no reason not to meet (him) even within this year” if it promotes peace on the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, he said.
South Korean news media reported last year the two countries had held a series of secret meetings to discuss a possible summit, but failed to breach wide differences.
Mr. Lee told the BBC that the health of Mr. Kim - who turns 68 next month and is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 - has improved. He also said that while North Korea is facing serious economic difficulties, it is not on the verge of collapse.
His comments came as North Korea fired about 20 artillery rounds into its western waters, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, adding that the military was closely monitoring the North Korean drills which Pyongyang says are part of an annual exercise. The North has designated two no-sail zones in the area, including some South Korean-held waters, through March 29.
The western sea border has been a constant source of tension between the two Koreas. Their navies fought a skirmish in November that left one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded, and engaged in bloodier battles in the area in 1999 and 2002.
Mr. Lee said this week’s artillery shelling could be an attempt by North Korea to emphasize that the peninsula remains a war zone and push for a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War. That conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, leaving the peninsula technically at war.
North Korea is said to believe a peace treaty with the U.S. would provide security and status, help ensure the survival of its government, and give it a stronger hand against rival South Korea.
South Korea and the United States have insisted that North Korea must return to nuclear disarmament talks it quit last year before any treaty can be concluded.
Mr. Lee also said North Korea’s strategy of delaying a resolution of the nuclear impasse would not work. He said the North is not abandoning its nuclear programs but rather is offering gestures for dialogue aimed at avoiding economic difficulties under the U.N. sanctions imposed last year.
North Korea argues it was compelled to develop nuclear weapons to cope with a military threat from the U.S., and has demanded a peace treaty and the lifting of sanctions before it rejoins the nuclear talks.