(Updates with Hong’s comments in second paragraph.)
Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s ruling party leader called on President Lee Myung Bak’s administration to soften its stance toward North Korea and seek talks with the communist neighbor to ease escalated tensions between the civil war foes.
“With my visit today as a turning point, I will try to switch the policy into a flexible reciprocity,” Hong Joon Pyo, head of the Grand National Party, said after returning from his one-day visit to an industrial complex in the North Korean city of Gaeseong, according to a statement on the party’s web site.
Lee last month replaced his minister in charge of North Korean affairs, signaling an easing of policies toward Kim Jong Il’s regime before next year’s South Korean elections.
Hong’s visit may help reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, expedite the resumption of six-nation talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program and boost inter-Korean projects such as a proposed gas pipeline.
Relations between the countries soured last year over attacks that killed 50 South Koreans. A Russian proposal to build a natural-gas pipeline through the divided peninsula was described this month by Hong as a possible turning point for inter-Korean relations.
The Gaeseong complex, located near the border where more than 100 South Korean companies have factories using North Korean labor, is the only project between the countries after Lee in May 2010 cut off trade with North Korea in retaliation for the sinking of a warship.
Hong has called for “a paradigm shift” in aid policy toward North Korea.
“It’s time to make our North Korea policy a bit more flexible,” he said in a Sept. 7 speech at the National Assembly.
South Korea’s government is considering providing free vaccines against hepatitis B virus for 1.1 million children in North Korea if inter-Korean relations improve, Newstomato reported, citing government-related officials it didn’t identify. The Unification Ministry declined to comment.
Lee rebuffed attempts by North Korea to restart nuclear talks unconditionally with the U.S., China, South Korea, Russia and Japan. South Korea and North Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a cease-fire.
North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan met his Russian counterpart Andrey Denisov on September 29 in Pyongyang to discuss nuclear and other inter-Korean issues, including one on the six-party talks, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
OAO Gazprom this month signed preliminary agreements with South Korea’s Korea Gas Corp. and the North Korean government to build a pipeline that would carry as much as 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year across its eastern border to the peninsula. The Russian gas-export monopoly said it may also supply gas for North Korean power generation.
Lee called the gas pipeline project a “win-win for everyone involved” in an interview this month.
He rolled back his predecessor’s “Sunshine Policy” of engaging with North Korea, arguing that this rewarded the regime for provocative behavior -- a view echoed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.
--Editors: Paul Tighe, John Brinsley
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