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SKorean leader urges strong army, citing threat

South Korea Koreas Nuclear

SKorean leader urges strong army, citing threat

SEOUL, South Korea – President Lee Myung-bak said Thursday that South Korea should strengthen its armed forces to cope with a continuing nuclear threat from North Korea despite recent conciliatory gestures.

After raising tensions with nuclear and missile tests earlier this year, North Korea released several American and South Korean detainees, announced it would resume joint projects with Seoul and offered direct talks with the U.S.

Seoul and Washington are studying the offers but have shown no signs of easing pressure on North Korea to disarm through U.N. sanctions imposed after its May nuclear test.

Lee warned that North Korea’s nuclear program continues to threaten stability on the Korean peninsula, and South Korea must not “let its guard down at any time.”

“It’s true that we need a dialogue with North Korea,” Lee said in a televised speech marking Armed Forces Day. But he added, “South-North Korean dialogue and peace will be advanced when we have a strong military with a firm readiness.”

On Wednesday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the country would make decisions on nuclear disarmament “in relation to U.S. policy” toward it.

In response, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that North Korea will continue to face isolation and “significant” sanctions if it is unwilling to give up its nuclear program.

Also Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told reporters in Seoul that Washington is open to dialogue with North Korea if it helps get international nuclear disarmament talks started again, and urged the North to take advantage of the chance.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity now for them to take a constructive measure,” he said.

North Korea has been insisting on one-on-one talks with the U.S. since quitting broader six-nation talks on its nuclear program in April. Washington, which had demanded that the North first return to the six-party talks, is now considering direct talks to push disarmament discussions forward.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is to travel to North Korea next week, raising hopes that he could help produce a breakthrough in the nuclear row. China, North Korea’s biggest source of economic aid and diplomatic support, could be key in pushing for the resumption of the six-nation talks.

Wen also is to meet Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in three-way talks Oct. 10 in Beijing that are expected to focus on North Korea’s nuclear program and regional cooperation. Lee and Hatoyama will hold bilateral talks a day earlier in Seoul, Lee’s office announced Thursday.

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