South Korea's Park pledges engagement with Pyongyang

SEOUL Mon Nov 5, 2012 9:53am IST

Park Geun-hye walks after a memorial service for her mother and the late first lady Yuk Young-soo at the national cemetery in Seoul in this picture taken August 15, 2012. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won/Files

Park Geun-hye walks after a memorial service for her mother and the late first lady Yuk Young-soo at the national cemetery in Seoul in this picture taken August 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won/Files

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SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye proposed on Monday to open liaison offices in the capitals of the rival Koreas in a sweeping policy statement that aimed to revive ties between the two countries.

Park, who represents the conservative New Frontier Party and is seeking to become the country's first woman president, said she was willing to meet North Korea's leader but said Pyongyang must renew its commitment to end its nuclear programme.

Park, who is the daughter of assassinated leader Park Chung-hee, leads her two major liberal opponents by double digits in a race for a December 19 vote to pick South Korea's president for a single five-year term.

Park's call for a more accommodative policy toward the North is aimed at distancing herself from President Lee Myung-bak's hardline position.

The two Koreas remain technically at war after an armistice rather than a peace treaty ended the 1950-53 Korean War. In 2010, the North shelled a civilian area in the South and is accused of a deadly naval attack.

North Korea under its untested new leader Kim Jong-un has resumed verbal attacks on Lee's government and on Park.

Pyongyang is widely seen as favouring the liberal opposition's Moon Jae-in, who has pledged unconditional aid for the impoverished and isolated country.

"For continued and systematic development of South-North economic cooperation and social and cultural exchange, I will establish South-North exchange and cooperation offices in Seoul and Pyongyang," Park told a news conference.

The proposal for liaison offices dates back to the early 1990s before the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time in 2000.

Park called for a confidence building process as a way to normalise ties between the two Koreas, adding it should begin with the two sides reaffirming existing agreements.

"In order to build confidence, there must be various channels of dialogue. I will meet with the leader of the North if that is needed for the development of South-North relationship," she said.

Offering a different policy approach to Lee, Park also said she would separate the humanitarian crisis in North Korea from politics.

Lee, who cut off aid to the North when he took power in 2008, has linked a resumption of food aid to a political thaw.

North Korea experienced a devastating famine in the 1990s from which its economy has not recovered, and a third of its population is malnourished, according to U.N. estimates.

The country needs about 5 million tons of grain and potatoes to feed its people and since the early 1990s its annual harvest has been 3.5-4.7 million tons, according to most observers.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Michael Perry)

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