South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held out the olive branch to the North in his annual new year's speech, saying he wanted the resumption of the long-stalled six-way talks over the communist nation's nuclear weapons.
"It is imperative now more than ever for countries concerned to play a fair and responsible role," he said, referring to negotiations with North Korea that include China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
"I remind the North that the path toward peace is yet to be closed." However, "nuclear weapons and military adventurism must be discarded. The North must work toward peace and cooperation not only with rhetoric but also with deeds."
But South Korea would respond to any threat against even "an inch of our territory."
Lee also said he wanted North Korea show movement on to "drastically enhance economic cooperation" in partnership with other countries. "Taking it a step further, we need to make endeavors to engage our North Korean brethren in the long journey toward freedom and prosperity."
Lee's speech, an apparent attempt to improve relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, comes after a rocky end to 2010 for the two countries that were created after the end in 1953 of a bloody three-year civil war that divided the Korean Peninsula.
Military tensions rose dramatically last year, beginning in March with the sinking, allegedly by North Korea, of the South Korean patrol boat Cheonan and the loss of 46 sailors.
An international investigating team said it found strong evidence that the 1,200-ton Cheonan split in half after being hit with a torpedo of North Korean manufacture. The team said the torpedo was likely fired by a small to mid-size submarine but North Korea denied it was involved.
Relations dipped further Nov. 23 when North Korea unexpectedly shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea and several miles from the North's mainland.
The daylight attack, in which North Korea fired around 170 shells, damaged dozens of houses and several military buildings. It also killed two South Korean marines and two civilians and injured at least 20 people. South Korean forces returned fire but there were no known causalities.
Lee said "the situation before and after the provocation against Yeonpyeong Island cannot be the same." Similar attacks will not be tolerated and "such provocations will be met with stern, strong responses.
"The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island also served as an opportunity for us to reflect on our security readiness and overhaul our defense posture. There cannot be any delay in establishing security measures," he said.
Lee's speech comes after South Korea's Unification Ministry said last week that one of its policies for 2011 would be to lay out detailed preparations should unification of the two Koreas appear likely.
Lee's speech also comes after editorials in the North Korean media that the two Koreas should improve relations but South Korea must stop its "reckless and wild behavior" toward the North.
"The danger of war should be removed and peace safeguarded in the Korean Peninsula," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. KCNA quoted a North Korean editorial saying, "If a war breaks out on this land, it will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust."
For that reason, "confrontation between North and South should be defused as early as possible. Dialogue and cooperation should be promoted proactively."
Lee's live address to the nation was made ahead of the arrival Tuesday in Seoul of Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. envoy responsible for policy toward North Korea, as part of his swing later through China and Japan. Bosworth will be accompanied by Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy for nuclear talks with North Korea.