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In a speech Thursday night, Lee made similar remarks, saying North Koreans have become increasingly aware that the South is better off. He did not elaborate on how their knowledge has expanded, but said it was “an important change that no one can stop.”

“Reunification is drawing near,” Lee said, according to the president’s website.

He also called on China to urge North Korea to embrace the same economic openness that has led millions of Chinese out of poverty — and said that North Korean economic independence was the key to reunification.

Lee didn’t give a specific timeframe for the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which was divided after the end of Japanese rule in 1945 and officially remains in a state of war because the Koreas’ 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

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Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report.