North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un (centre) greets a soldier during his inspection of a Korean People’s Army tank division, on Sunday. This image was released by the North Korean state media. Image Credit: AP

Seoul: South Korea's president urged rival North Korea yesterday to use the transition of leadership after Kim Jong-il's death to usher in a new era of peace on the tense Korean peninsula, even as he warned the North against any provocations.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reached out in his New Year's message to the North Korean government led by Kim's son, Kim Jong-un, saying he has high hopes for a breakthrough this year in negotiations over the North's nuclear programme.

However, Lee warned that Seoul would respond sternly to any North Korean provocations.

Lee's comments in a nationally televised speech came a day after the North called on its citizens to rally around Kim Jong-un and transform themselves into his "human shields."

‘A sea change'

Lee said Kim Jong-il's death is "portending a sea change" for the fractured Korean peninsula. "If North Korea comes forward with a sincere attitude, it will be possible for us to work together to open a new era," he said.

After a decade of warming ties, relations plummeted in 2008 after Lee took office with a firm policy of linking aid to the impoverished North to its commitment to dismantle its nuclear programme. Most joint business ventures and other civilian, humanitarian and cultural exchanges were suspended.

Lee said the Korean peninsula is at a turning point with Kim's death, and "new opportunities always emerge amid such changes."

His speech shows South Korea "has no intention" of provoking North Korea, Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said.

State media yesterday accused Lee of plotting to shake up the North by temporarily placing his troops on high alert after Kim Jong-il's death. The North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial that Lee must "kneel down and apologise" for his acts.

However, in one of his first roles as North Korea's leader, the young Kim met briefly in Pyongyang last week with a former South Korean first lady who was leading private mourning delegations paying respects to Kim Jong-il — a clear sign he is open to reaching out again to the South Koreans.

North Korea's New Year's message on Sunday didn't include the country's routine harsh criticism of the US and avoided mention of the country's nuclear ambitions, a sign the North may be willing to continue talks with Washington to win food aid in exchange for denuclearisation.

North Korea also repeated a call in the message for implementing past agreements for the Koreas to co-operate on potentially lucrative economic projects. Lee said negotiations can resume if North Korea halts its nuclear activities.

North Korea, which has tested two atomic devices since 2006, said it wants to return to long-stalled six-nation talks on halting its nuclear weapons programme in return for aid. Washington and Seoul, however, have insisted that the North first show progress on past disarmament commitments.