- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

SEOUL — Lee Myung-bak, who took office today as South Korea’s 17th president, told North Korea not to be “nervous” about his tougher policy approach to the communist state, pledging that reconciliation remains his goal and showing a willingness to meet with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

“Together, the leaders of the two Koreas must contemplate what they can do to make the lives of all 70 million Koreans happy and how each side can respect each other and open the door to unification,” Mr. Lee said in his inaugural address this morning.

“If it is to discuss these issues, then I believe the two leaders should meet whenever necessary and talk openly, with an open mind,” he said, according to an official translation of his speech provided by the South Korean government.

Still, as he did during his election campaign, Mr. Lee conditioned his cooperation with Pyongyang, North Korea, as well as economic aid, on progress of a six-nation deal to dismantle the North’s nuclear-weapons programs in exchange for political and economic incentives.

“Once North Korea abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness, we can expect to see a new horizon in inter-Korean cooperation,” he said.

Implementation of the six-party Oct. 3 deal has stalled because of the North’s failure to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear programs, facilities and materials by a Dec. 31 deadline.

Over the weekend, Mr. Lee told the North there is no reason for it “to be nervous” about his plans, because he thinks that “South and North Korea should reconcile and maintain peace.”

The pro-American Mr. Lee, who is the first conservative to lead South Korea in a decade, promised to improve relations with Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Seoul yesterday, and Mr. Lee is expected to visit President Bush at the White House in April.

“We will work to develop and further strengthen traditional friendly relations with the United States into a future-oriented partnership,” Mr. Lee said today.

In addition, “we will seek peace and mutual prosperity with our close neighbors, including Japan, China and Russia, and promote further exchange and cooperation with them,” he said.

Domestically, Mr. Lee, 66, vowed to accelerate growth in Asia’s third-largest economy, ease regulation and taxation on business and attract more foreign investment.

“Our nation’s competitiveness has fallen, and instability in the resource and financial markets threatens our economy,” he said at a ceremony in Seoul attended by tens of thousands guests and citizens.

“Economic revival is our most urgent task,” said Mr. Lee, who rose from poverty to head Hyundai Engineering and Construction and was Seoul’s mayor from 2002 to 2006.

South Korea, suffering from sagging competitiveness and falling foreign investment, eagerly anticipates economic improvements, but given Mr. Lee’s background at Hyundai — and in a market dominated by giant conglomerates — questions have risen over whether he will be pro-free market or a pro-big business interventionist.

“I think he has much broader interest than a typical conglomerate executive,” said Tom Coyner, author of the book “Mastering Business in Korea.” “If he mimics old-fashioned policies, he will not go down in history as the visionary which I think he believes himself to be.”

In addition to Miss Rice, among other foreign officials who attended today’s ceremony were Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Russian Prime Minister Victor Zubkov and Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan.

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