South Korea president says no pre-condition to summit with North Korean leader

South Korean President Park Geun Hye speaking during her New Year news conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
South Korean President Park Geun Hye speaking during her New Year news conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye said on Monday that she was willing to hold unconditional talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and to "meet just about anyone" to seek peace and reunification on the peninsula.

It's not the first time Ms Park has held out the possibility of a summit, but senior government officials admit the chances of such a meeting are remote given the difficulty the Koreas have in organising talks at any level.

Ms Park's remarks at a New Year press conference followed an address last week by Mr Kim in which he also hinted at a summit - saying he was open to the "highest-level" talks with the South.

"I can do an inter-Korean summit if it helps. There is no pre-condition," Ms Park said on Monday. "I can meet just about anyone necessary to open the path towards peaceful re-unification," she added.

But Ms Park stressed that the first priority was for North Korea to respond to Seoul's latest proposal - made last month - to resume a high-level dialogue.

"The North should come forward to the talks proactively," she said.

Despite Ms Park's talk of "no pre-conditions", Seoul has repeatedly insisted that any substantive dialogue would require Pyongyang to show some tangible commitment to denuclearisation.

The two Koreas have only held two leadership summits, with the South's late liberal presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun travelling to the North in 2000 and 2007 respectively.

Both met former leader Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.

Since succeeding his father, Mr Kim Jong Un has presided over North Korea's third - and largest - nuclear test, as well as a successful satellite launch.

Noting that North Korea had made "no progress" towards denuclearisation, Park said Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme continued to overshadow any effort to ease tensions.

"The denuclearisation issue has remained unresolved for long... we can't talk about peaceful reunification while leaving the issue unresolved," Ms Park said.

The North offered Saturday to "temporarily" suspend any future nuclear tests if the US cancelled its annual joint drills with South Korea this year.

But Washington rejected the proposal as an "implicit threat" and Seoul disclosed Monday plans to stage a joint naval drill with the US this week.

"It is improper for North Korea to link its nuclear test to joint military drills between South Korea and the US," Seoul's Defence Ministry spokesman said.

The last round of formal high-level talks between the two Koreas was held in February last year and resulted in the North hosting a rare reunion of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Both sides agreed to restart the dialogue after a top-ranking North Korean delegation made a surprise visit to the Asian Games held in the South in October.

But the talks never materialised and tensions soared again after a series of minor military skirmishes along the border.

Some of those spats were related to North Korean anger at Seoul's refusal to prevent activists launching anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.

Seoul argues it had no legal grounds to prevent them, despite complaints from residents in border areas who fear North Korean retaliation.

Ms Park on Monday said she would try to "balance freedom of speech and the safety of citizens" in addressing the leafleting issue.

On Seoul's deeply strained ties with Tokyo, Ms Park said she was not opposed to talking with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe but stressed that there had to be a sincere show of atonement for abuses committed during Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of Korea.

"There is no reason not to hold a summit but...we need changes in Japan's stance," she said.

In particular, the president urged Tokyo to apologise properly to the so called "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II.

Some senior Tokyo politicians including Mr Abe have suggested the issue is overblown, and say there is no reliable evidence of official involvement in the sex slavery system.

"If Japan fails to resolve the issue on will not only strain bilateral relations but also put a heavy historical burden on Japan," Ms Park said, noting that only a few, very elderly comfort women were still alive.

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