President Lee Myung-bak reversed his tough approach on North Korea Friday and offered to resume dialogue and provide humanitarian aid, but the move was immediately clouded by the fatal shooting of South Korean woman by a North Korean soldier in the North’s tourism enclave.
A tourism company reported that the woman was shot shortly before dawn on Friday after wandering into a fenced-off military area near Diamond Mountain, a tourist zone that was opened to South Koreans in 1998.
South Korea immediately suspended visits to the zone, a symbol of cross-border reconciliation. Nearly 2 million South Koreans have visited Diamond Mountain, a scenic spot at the southeastern tip of North Korea, first by ferry and later on a land route.
President Lee was informed of the shooting an hour and a half before he was to make his first speech to Parliament as president, his aides said. But he pressed ahead with his reconciliation overture.
“Full dialogue between the two Koreas must resume,” Mr. Lee said.
“The South Korean government is willing to engage in serious consultations on how to implement” the accords that the two former South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun reached with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, in 2000 and 2007, Mr. Lee said.
There was no immediate North Korean reaction to Mr. Lee’s speech, or comment on the shooting. It was not clear whether the death of the tourist, identified as Park Wang-ja, would alter Mr. Lee’s offer.
Mr. Lee, whose election last December returned conservatives to power after a decade, had shown reservation bordering on disregard for the agreements negotiated by his predecessors.
His reversal came amid mounting domestic and international pressure to soften his policies. Buffeted by weeks of protests against his decision to lift an import ban on American beef, Mr. Lee was being pressed by his liberal rivals to improve relations with the North at a time when the United States was engaging Mr. Kim.
On Friday, Mr. Lee stopped short of saying he was bound by his predecessors’ agreements and reiterated that the South’s priority was disarmament, hinting that no major economic aid would be forthcoming unless progress is made in ending the North’s nuclear weapons programs.
Still, his overture appeared to indicate flexibility. Since his election, he had limited his comments to the possibility of a “review” of the inter-Korean agreements, which promised shipyards, roads, rail assistance, and other multi-billion-dollar projects for the North. He had also ruled out expanding joint economic projects already under way, such as Kaesong, an industrial complex north of Seoul and a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation.
His position had infuriated North Korea, which considered it an insult to Mr. Kim, who signed the deals.
Calling Mr. Lee a “sycophant” and a “traitor,” the North cut off all official dialogue with the South, ordered South Korean officials to leave Kaesong, and demanded that Mr. Lee declare that he would honor the agreements.
With his campaign promise of a tougher policy on North Korea, Mr. Lee won the support of South Koreans who had complained that previous governments had coddled the North with massive aid that won few concessions.
But last month, North Korea submitted a partial accounting of its nuclear programs and the United States moved to take North Korea off its terrorism blacklist and relax some economic sanctions.
Japan also agreed to lift some sanctions, while the North reopened an investigation into abductions of Japanese citizens.
The United States began shipping 500,000 tons of food aid to North Korea this month. On Friday, the UN Children's Fund was headed to the North’s isolated northeastern provinces two years after the government ordered it out.
When South Korea recently offered to ship 50,000 tons of corn, the impoverished North said it did not need the South’s help, leading some critics in South Korea to charge that Mr. Lee’s policy had backfired
“He thought North Korea would buckle under a hard-line policy, but it didn’t happen,” said Cho Seong-ryoul, an analyst at the Institute for National Security and Strategy in Seoul.
“Change in his policy became inevitable.”
Mr. Cho said Mr. Lee disappointed many conservative supporters, including aging South Koreans who seek to be reunited with their relatives in the North, and businessmen who had hoped to relocate their labor-intensive factories to Kaesong.
On Friday, Mr. Lee said he is ready to help relieve the food shortage in the North. In return, he proposed reunions of aging Koreans separated by the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul who had predicted the failure of Mr. Lee’s hard-line policy, said the president’s overture on Friday would not win any immediate response from the North because it lacked specifics, such as a commitment to expand the Kaesong complex.
Mr. Lee’s government badly needs a success. Amid rising oil prices, it was forced to scale back the economic growth target for this year. The crisis heightened when large crowds spilled out in recent weeks to protest American beef imports.
“The beef fiasco showed to him that he cannot overcome the crisis by dividing the country further over North Korea,” Mr. Cheong said.
In Beijing, six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear programs entered their second day Friday, with negotiators discussing Pyongyang’s complaint that it has not received most of the energy assistance it had been promised.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, reported progress. “Just what are the specific agreements on verification, I think the six parties will make an announcement soon,” Mr. Qin told a news conference.