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August 16, 2009

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S. Korea's leader puts arms cuts for aid deal

SOUTH Korea's president yesterday called on North Korea to reach a deal to cut conventional arms amassed on their heavily fortified border and renewed a pledge to provide aid if the North ends its atomic ambitions.

North Korea, which has harshly criticized President Lee Myung-bak, this week released a South Korean worker it had held captive since March in a rare conciliatory gesture analysts said could herald a defrosting of ties.

"If the North and South reduce conventional weapons and troops, enormous resources will be freed up to improve the economies on both sides," Lee said in a speech marking the anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule over the Korean peninsula in 1945.

The rival Koreans have more than 1 million troops positioned near the land-mine strewn Demilitarised Zone buffer that has divided the peninsula since fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease fire.

"Now is the time for the North and South to come to the table and talk about these issues," Lee said.

North Korea has been angered by Lee's policy of ending unconditional handouts -- once equal to about 5 percent of the North's estimated US$17 billion a year economy -- and instead linking aid to progress Pyongyang makes in ending the security threat it poses to the region.

Lee has said since he took office in February 2008 that he was willing to provide a massive aid package to the North and help rebuild its broken economy in return for Pyongyang ending its nuclear arms programme.

Separately, the chairwoman of the Hyundai Group, one of the few South Korean executives to have direct dealings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, has been in Pyongyang most of this week to secure the release of the Hyundai worker.

Yonhap news agency said yesterday Hyundai Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun had decided to extend her stay in the North and would come back to Seoul today.

She has also been trying to plan a meeting with Kim to discuss the resumption of tourism at a mountain resort in North Korea run by a Hyundai affiliate shut down a year ago after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who wandered into a military area.

The resort and factory park run by Hyundai have been vital sources of legitimate foreign currency for North Korea which was hit by UN sanctions for its nuclear test in May.


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