Park offers to meet with Kim Jong-un unconditionally

January 12, 2015
President Park Geun-hye speaks in a nationally televised press conference at the presidential office on Jan. 12, 2014.   (AP Photo)

President Park Geun-hye speaks in a nationally televised press conference at the presidential office on Jan. 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday held out the prospect of an unconditional summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a rare exchange of optimism on the divided Korean Peninsula.

“I can meet with anyone if necessary to open the path of a peaceful unification,” Park said in a nationally televised New Year press conference.

Park’s two liberal predecessors held summit talks with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader Kim, in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Kim Jong-il died of heart failure in 2011.

Park’s overture came more than a week after Kim said he is willing to hold summit talks with Park, if proper conditions are met. He also said that North Korea could resume high-level talks and other forms of governmental dialogue with South Korea.

Still, North Korea has remained silent on South Korea’s recent offer to ministerial talks in January to discuss such bilateral issues as the reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Park attached no strings for possible talks with Kim, though she said North Korea should demonstrate its sincerity and take steps toward denuclearization.

North Korea had agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programs, but it later conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, drawing international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

The North has threatened to push for another nuclear test in protest of a U.N. resolution against its alleged human rights abuse.

North Korea has recently offered to temporarily suspend nuclear tests in exchange for a halt to joint annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, a demand rejected by Washington.

The North claims the joint military drills are a rehearsal for a nuclear war against it. Seoul and Washington have vowed to continue the exercises, as they are defensive in nature.

Also Monday, Park expressed hope that the rival Koreas can stage the reunion of separated families around Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on Feb. 19.

“The issue of family reunions is one that cannot be delayed anymore, given the age of those in the separated families,” Park said.

Millions of Koreans remain separated across the border as the sides are technically in a state of war after the three-year conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. There are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians of the two countries.

Family reunions are a pressing humanitarian issue on the divided peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

She suggested that South Korea will continue to strike a delicate balance in handling the issue of propaganda leaflets that North Korean defectors in South Korea regularly send to their homeland to try to encourage North Koreans to rise up against Kim.

Supporters say it’s a matter of freedom of expression, but critics say it could invite unnecessary trouble to South Korea.

In October, the two Koreas exchanged machine gun fire across the border after the North apparently tried to shoot down balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

Park also said the recent U.S. sanctions on North Korea will not derail South Korea’s efforts to hold talks to address bilateral issues.

She described the U.S. sanctions as “appropriate” and said North Korea should not stage any provocations against the international community.

The comments came more than a week after the U.S. imposed sanctions on North Korea over its alleged cyber-attack on Sony Pictures over its comedy film “The Interview,” which depicts a plot to assassinate its leader Kim Jong-un.

The FBI has determined that North Korea was behind the hacking. North Korea has denied any responsibility, although it described the attack as a “righteous deed.”

Park also urged Japan to change its attitude on history to facilitate a possible summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Park has so far shunned bilateral talks with Abe, and one of the most knotty issues are the elderly Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s World War II soldiers.

The issue of sex slaves has gained urgency as the victims are dying off. In 2007, more than 120 South Korean victims were alive, but the number has since dropped to 55, with their average age standing at 88.

She warned that the issue could be a “big burden” on Japan unless it is quickly resolved. “What is most important is to resolve the issue while they are alive,” Park said.

Historians estimate that up to 200,000 Korean and other Asian women were forced into sexual servitude for Japan’s soldiers. Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945.

Separately, Park offered an apology for causing public concerns over the leak of a presidential document that has sparked a political firestorm over allegations that one of her former aides tried to exert undue influence on state affairs.

The apology came a week after prosecutors announced a preliminary conclusion that a senior police officer fabricated a presidential document.

Still, she said she has no plans to dismiss her chief secretary and the three presidential secretaries, a key demand of the main opposition party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

The three presidential secretaries have long been accused by critics of exercising excessive influence over the running of state affairs.

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