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."
"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'
"My prerequisite to meet Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un has always been the same: If they have a genuine interest to sit down and engage in dialogue, to open up North Korea to improve the quality of life in North Korea," said the South Korean leader, whose term in office ends in February.
Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, as North Korea's leader in January, several weeks after the father's unexpected death in December.
South Korea's intelligence service was criticized locally for lacking prior information about the elder Mr. Kim's health, but no spy agency is thought to have penetrated the highly secretive corridors of North Korean power.
"There is a lot of analysis of what is going on in North Korea," said Mr. Lee, a former chief executive officer for the automaker Hyundai and a former mayor of Seoul. "But we need time to have a fuller picture."
Turning to the issue of security, Mr. Lee noted that the United States is "sympathetic" to South Korea's hopes of acquiring a surface-to-surface missile with a range exceeding 186 miles.
The South's current missile force is obligated by international treaty, and by agreements with the United States, to the range limitation.
Meanwhile, Seoul will host the two-day 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, beginning Monday.
More than 50 world leaders, including President Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will discuss how to make nuclear materials and facilities safe from accidents and terrorism.
Although proliferation is not on the summit agenda, North Korea is likely to dominate sideline discussions. Mr. Obama reportedly is planning to raise pressure on North Korea with Mr. Hu in bilateral discussions alongside the summit.
Mr. Lee talked to reporters from The Washington Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Japanese daily newspaper Asahi and the South Korean daily Dong-A.