- - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

SEOUL — South Korea’s president said Wednesday that North Korea’s new leadership, including young dictator Kim Jong-un, may be trapped in the secretive regime’s old ways, noting the North’s announcement of plans to launch a satellite after having promised not to conduct missile tests in exchange for U.S. food aid.

“Perhaps they feel the need to change and open up, but because of the nature of power within North Korea, they may not be able to do so,” President Lee Myung-bak told a select group of foreign correspondents at the presidential residence, the Blue House.

“I am sure there is a lot of debate and argument going back and forth within the North Korean leadership,” Mr. Lee said, adding that his government lacks hard intelligence about the inner workings of the North’s totalitarian regime.

In a wide-ranging interview, the conservative president discussed North-South relations, the influence of China and Vietnam and an upcoming global summit on nuclear security that his country will host.

North Korea announced last week that it will launch a satellite in April — a maneuver that many analysts consider a cover for a missile test. The announcement was made just weeks after North Korean diplomats secured badly needed U.S. food aid in exchange for a vow not to conduct missile launches, among other promises.
“How Kim deals with the international condemnation will be a litmus test,” Mr. Lee said, noting that a missile launch would be “a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Economic influences

“Within the United States, there are going to be a lot of voices, in Congress and in the public, saying, ‘How can we provide food aid when the North Koreans renege on their promises?’” he said.

He declined to comment on whether his country would try to shoot down the missile if it breaches South Korean airspace in its trajectory over the Yellow Sea.

The North and South have coexisted in a technical state of war since both sides signed a 1953 truce that ended overt hostilities in the Korean War. In recent years, the North has killed 50 South Korean troops and civilians in military actions widely condemned by the international community.

Mr. Lee, whose administration has taken a hard line on the North’s regime, expressed hope that other regional players — namely China, which is North Korea’s No. 1 trading partner and political ally, and Vietnam — will prod reform in Pyongyang. Both countries have implemented capitalistic reforms that have invigorated their economies.

The South Korean leader also placed hope in momentum for reform inside North Korea.

“We attach a lot of hope that change can happen within the North Korea people,” said Mr. Lee, 70. “This will inevitably influence the North Korean leadership.”
While North Korea is one of the world’s most isolated, repressive regimes, the collapse of its central state distribution system in the late 1990s gave birth to a primitive market economy and a nascent merchant class.

What’s more, the North’s increasing cross-border trade with China has enabled an increase in imports of illegal South Korean TV dramas, films and pop songs, cracking Pyongyang’s once-formidable information wall.

Asked whether he would be willing to follow the example of his two predecessors — Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun — in holding high-profile summits with the North’s new leader, Mr. Lee was cagey.

‘A fuller picture’

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