South Korean President Lee Myung-bak urged China to do more to prod North Korea towards reforms, but added that his real hope for change inside the ultranationalist, hardline state lay with the North's public.
Lee is gearing up to host the high-profile Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul next week. At the summit, more than 50 world leaders including President Hu Jintao, US President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, together with heads of organisations including the UN and Interpol, will be discussing how to make nuclear materials and facilities safe from accidents and terrorism.
Although proliferation is not on the summit's official agenda, North Korea is likely to dominate sideline discussions.
Lee (pictured) said yesterday that when he met Chinese and Vietnamese leaders, he always urged them to engage a reform-resistant Pyongyang leadership. 'If they meet North Korean officials they can show them and say, 'look how much change we are going through,' and convince them that opening up can lead to positive change,' he said.
However, he noted that due to the inflexibility of the North Korean state, Pyongyang's policymakers might be caught in a trap of their own making. 'Perhaps they feel the need to change and open up, but because of the nature of power within North Korea, they may not be able to do so.'
Unlike some US figures, however, Lee did not criticise Beijing for its alleged refusal to use leverage against the North Korean regime.
According to news reports, at next week's summit Obama will be pressing Hu on both Syria and North Korea. Pyongyang has said it will launch a satellite by rocket in April, a move many experts consider cover for a ballistic missile test.
With North Korea having announced the satellite launch just days after securing a deal with the US on food aid in return for missile and nuclear programme moratoriums, Lee suggested that there might be a policy conflict under way between the North's hawks and doves.
He said, however, that he lacked hard information about the policies of Pyongyang's youthful supreme leader Kim Jong-un and his power circle. 'I am sure there is a lot of debate and argument going back and forth within the North Korean leadership. We must give ourselves a bit of time to have an accurate understanding of what is working within the North Korean regime.'
Lee also expressed hopes that the North's public would create its own momentum for change. 'We attach a lot of hope that change can happen among the North Korean people,' he said. 'This will inevitably influence the North Korean leadership.'
The collapse of the North's state distribution system has led to a basic market economy sprouting. Meanwhile, increasing trade with China has brought in more illegal South Korean television dramas, films and pop songs, cracking the North's once-formidable information dam.
The conservative Lee has consistently taken a tough approach towards the North, overturning the 'sunshine policy' favoured by his two presidential predecessors, both of whom attended summits with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.
Asked whether he would be willing to meet Kim before Lee's five-year term in office expired next February, the former Hyundai CEO and mayor of Seoul was non-committal. 'My prerequisite to meet Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un has always been the same: if they have a genuine interest to sit down and engage in dialogue and to open up North Korea to improve the quality of life. The North Koreans know where I stand. It is not up to me, it is up to them - whether they are willing to change.'