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Kim Jong-un's ascension offers window to ease North-South tensions

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“We will do our best,” says Chung Ok-min, a National Assembly member from South Korea's ruling conservative party and a former college professor. “I support humanitarian assistance,” she says, alluding to food and other aid that Mr. Lee has denied while calling on the North to give up its nuclear program.

After his inauguration as president in early 2008, Lee reversed the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation initiated by former president Kim Dae-jung after he defeated a conservative for the presidency in December 1997.  Both Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, also dedicated to North-South reconciliation, flew to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il. The North Korean leader hosted Kim Dae-jung for the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000 and Mr. Roh at the second summit in October 2007.

President Lee strongly opposes talks and deals that fail to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, but he is likely to mute his feelings in a time of grief and transition in the North. One reason is that South Koreans vote on new assembly members next April and in December vote for a president to replace Lee, who under Korea’s constitution cannot run for a second five-year term.

“Lee will not take a strong stance against North Korea,” predicts Hwang Sung June, a computer analyst. “The Korean people want stability”  and calm rather than intermittent crises such as those inflicted last year by the sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan and the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea in which a total of 50 people died.

The yearning for stability may equate with a desire for reconciliation, say analysts, but does not necessarily translate into a desire to reunite the two Koreas, divided at the 38th parallel by the US and the Soviet Union after the Japanese surrender in 1945.  

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