The death of Kim Jong-il could pave the way for a sea change in relations on the tense peninsula and could bring about a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with the North, the South Korean leader said yesterday.
In his new year message President Lee Myung-bak said that the premiership of Kim Jong-un is a "turning point" which provides opportunities for change. However, he also warned that Seoul would respond sternly to any aggression from its neighbour. "There should be a new opportunity amid changes and uncertainty," he said. "If North Korea comes forward with a sincere attitude, it will be possible for us to work together to open a new era."
There have been indications by the North that it is willing to return to the talks, and Mr Lee said in his speech that if North Korea halts its continuing nuclear activities, negotiations could pick up again.
"We are ready to resolve security concerns on the Korean peninsula and provide assistance to revive North Korea's economy through agreements in the six-nation talks," he said.
South Korea would, however, "thoroughly maintain national security as long as there is a possibility of provocation by the North", he added.
Mr Lee's comments show optimism despite continued provocation from the North. Pyongyang has regularly excoriated the conservative South Korean leader ever since he ended the South's "Sunshine policy" of reconciliation and cut off all food aid to the North after his inauguration in 2008, but yesterday's comments could spell a warming of relations once more.
The relationship between the two nations had appeared to be as icy as ever after the death of the secretive state's eccentric but brutal ruler on 17 December.
Mr Lee gave North Korea another reason for outrage by refusing to send a condolence delegation to bow before Kim Jong-il's body in its glass coffin. The country's propaganda machine has continued to churn out aggressive statements against Mr Lee's administration, including threats of a "sea of fire" and a "roar of revenge". The country's powerful National Defence Commission has said it would never deal with him and said there would be no change to the country's isolationist foreign policy. In a New Year's Day message the North also urged its citizens to rally around Kim Jong-un and become his "human shields".
Relations between the two Koreas have been extremely tense in recent years, reaching their lowest ebb in decades in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and the North's deadly shelling of a island over the border later that year. "If any aggression occurs, we will respond with strength," Mr Lee said on Sunday.