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Former Seoul Mayor Says Change Needed on N. Korean Policy

The politician who is, for now, way out in front in the race to become South Korea's next president says it is time for a change in policy toward North Korea. Former Mayor Lee Myung-bak says Seoul must demand real reform from the North, while patching up the alliance with the United States. Lee's comments coincide with a new and severe blow to the party of South Korea's current president. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

Former Mayor of Seoul Lee Myung-bak heaped criticism Tuesday on President Roh Moo-hyun, who he hopes to replace.

Speaking to reporters, Lee, the presidential frontrunner for the opposition Grand National Party, derided President Roh's engagement policy toward North Korea as "an unprincipled and unilateral policy of appeasement." He accuses the Roh administration of a "business as usual" response to the North's tests of ballistic missiles and a nuclear weapon last year.

The Roh administration cut off emergency food and fertilizer aid to the North following those tests, and supported United Nations sanctions punishing Pyongyang.

But opposition politicians say Seoul should make South Korean cooperation and investment in the North conditional on more responsible behavior by the communist regime.

Lee insists a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable. He says he does not even plan for a contingency in which North Korea refuses to dismantle its nuclear weapons, as dismantlement is a must. He says he hopes this week's six-nation talks in Beijing will put the process in motion.

South Korea, China, Japan, the United States and Russia are scheduled to meet with North Korea Thursday in their latest attempt to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear programs in exchange for financial and diplomatic benefits.

Lee says he does not have much faith North Korea's leader will keep a September 2005 promise he made to disarm. He says he does not believe Chairman Kim Jong Il will walk what he calls the right path. However, he urges Kim to dismantle his nuclear weapons and liberalize his economy.

Lee says opening its economy, rather than infusions of outside assistance, is the North's only way out of the severe deprivation it has endured for decades.

Mayor Lee and his party have approval ratings of more than 50 percent, far ahead of the 10 percent and lower ratings of President Roh and his Uri party.

Twenty-three Uri lawmakers defected from the party Tuesday, in the latest of a string of severe political blows to Mr. Roh.

The defection deprives Uri of its status as South Korea's ruling party, cutting the number of Uri seats in the 299-member National Assembly down to 110. The opposition Grand National Party of Mayor Lee now has more, with 127 seats.

Defecting Uri lawmaker Lee Jong-gul says he will help to create an entirely new political party. He says the new party will be completely disconnected from the Uri party. He says he and other departing Uri lawmakers feel a deep sense of responsibility for the public's loss of faith in the Uri party. He hopes the new party will provide a means of redemption.

Experts say public dissatisfaction with the Uri party is fueled mainly by rising unemployment and skyrocketing real estate prices. The party is widely expected to rename and repackage itself when it holds its convention next week.