President Park Geun-hye said she was open to meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at any time if it is necessary for peace on the Korean Peninsula, indicating a softer approach to the belligerent regime that remains fickle with the South.
Park, however, stressed that she was against holding the summit talks for the sake of talks, and that a meeting should come from sincerity, in an interview published in the French daily Le Figaro on Saturday ahead of her three-day visit to France this week.
Cheong Wa Dae's senior public relations secretary Lee Jung-hyun later explained that Park's comments ran in line with her principles.
Park touched down in Paris early Sunday morning, Korean time, as part of her weeklong trip to Western Europe including Britain and Belgium. This is the first time Park has been to France in 39 years, when she returned after six months of studying upon the assassination of her mother, first lady Yook Young-soo, in 1974.
Park kicked off her stay in France with a series of culture-related events, including a celebration of Korean television drama, followed by a luncheon with Korean residents. Park also met with the secretary-general of UNESCO and visited the Orsay Museum.
On Monday, Park is scheduled to hold summit talks with French President Francois Hollande to discuss expanding bilateral economic cooperation. Park also plans to seek France's support for Seoul's policy on the North.
In the interview, Park said the Seoul government was ready to help North Korea, but urged it to give up its nuclear program, saying the communist nation was pursuing "an illusion" by trying to rebuild its broken economy while concurrently seeking missile and nuclear weapons development.
"We are ready to help North Korea. My position is that I can hold a meeting at any time if it is necessary for development in the South-North relations or peace on the Korean Peninsula."
The two Koreas have held two summits so far, in 2000 and 2007, both during liberal administrations in the South.
Park met then-leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il in 2002 upon the invitation of Pyongyang. The North, which had remained relatively cautious in criticizing Park throughout her election win last December and earlier months in office, has recently started to become vindictive and direct in its criticism of Park, as her conservative administration showed a hard-line posture against the North.
Inter-Korean relations plunged this year as Pyongyang ratcheted up war threats after conducting its third nuclear test in February. The ties had shown signs of a thaw later with the reopening of a joint industrial complex in the North, but chilled again after Pyongyang unilaterally called off reunions for separated families in September.
Park said it was difficult to trust the North, as Pyongyang kept flouting agreements. The joint factory park in the North's border city of Gaeseong could be a touchstone of trust between the two sides, she said, stressing that Pyongyang should act in accordance with common sense and international standards.
"North Korea is ignoring the hunger and livelihoods of its people in order to maintain its regime," she said. "If it continues to act like this, I think it will face difficulties from both inside and outside, and collapse on its own."
During the interview, Park also addressed relations with Japan, calling on the neighbor that has been showing an extremist right-wing attitude to learn from Europe's case.
She stressed that postwar Europe was able to bond closely because Germany repented for its past wrongdoings.