South Korea's president opened the door Monday to possible nuclear talks with North Korea and warned the neighboring country to avoid any provocations, saying the Korean peninsula is at a crucial turning point.
Lee Myung-bak's comments in a nationally televised speech come as the young son of the late Kim Jong Il takes power in North Korea as Supreme Commander of the military and ruling party leader after Kim's death last month. The North vowed Sunday in a New Year's message that it would bolster its military and defend the son, Kim Jong Un, "unto death."
"The situation on the Korean peninsula is now entering a new turning point," Lee said. "But there should be a new opportunity amid changes and uncertainty."
Lee also warned that South Korea would sternly respond to any North Korean attack. In 2010, 50 South Koreans died in attacks blamed on the North.
North Korea has regularly criticized Lee since he took office in 2008 and ended a no-strings-attached aid policy toward the North. Lee sought to link aid to progress in North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
If North Korea halts its continuing nuclear activities, Lee said, there could be a resumption of international disarmament-for-aid negotiations meant to rid the North of its nuclear programs. A sincere attitude from North Korea could lead to better relations between the rivals, he said.
North Korea warned Friday that there would be no softening of its position toward South Korea's government after Kim Jong Il's death. North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission said the country would never deal with Lee.