UNITED NATIONS — South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Wednesday that North Korea must scrap its atomic weapons programs before the divided Korean Peninsula can be unified with the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.
Lee told world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly that North Korea, which conducted its second nuclear test in May, should return to stalled international nuclear disarmament talks "right away and without any preconditions."
Lee, whose tough policies on the North have stoked fury in Pyongyang, spoke as his country, the United States, China, Japan and Russia worked to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program. North Korea walked away from the talks in April to protest world criticism of a rocket launch.
Lee urged the North to come back to nuclear talks "to achieve a genuine peace on the Korean Peninsula and for its own sake as well."
In a description of Korean history likely to anger the North, Lee said in his speech that the South, with U.N. approval, "became the only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula."
The Korean War ended in 1953 with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two countries technically at war.
"Denuclearization is a prerequisite to paving a path toward genuine reconciliation and unification in the Korean Peninsula," Lee said. "A nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula must be realized in order to attain peace in Northeast Asia and beyond."
Lee also repeated a proposal to jump-start nuclear talks. His offer would give the North economic and political incentives, including a security guarantee, in exchange for the North irreversibly dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Unlike past deals, Lee has called for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program in one step, instead of in phases. North Korea claims that negotiators have yet to provide concessions promised in past nuclear agreements.
After months of provocative actions aimed at South Korea, Japan and the United States, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has reportedly expressed interest in "bilateral and multilateral talks," indicating the North could rejoin the nuclear negotiations.
Washington had previously demanded the North first return to the six-nation talks before allowing one-on-one contact. The U.S. now says it is considering direct talks if that would bring the North back to negotiations.
The last six-nation talks took place in Beijing in December 2008.
Even as it pursues diplomacy, however, the United States has shown no signs of easing pressure on North Korea, despite the North's release of two American journalists and five South Koreans detained in the country and other conciliatory gestures. U.S. officials are tightening sanctions against the North and pushing Asian nations and others to implement punitive U.N. measures.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is traveling this week to Asia, including China, South Korea and Japan, for talks that will focus on North Korea.