No Evidence of South Korean Policy Shift Toward North

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak indicated no softening of his hard-line stance on North Korea and vowed Wednesday to work closely with Washington to end the communist nation's nuclear ambitions.

Ties between the two Koreas have plunged to their lowest level in a decade since Lee took office in February, ending 10 years of liberal leadership and a "sunshine" policy that used aid as a way to foster good relations with the North.

Relations have improved considerably since the rivals put down their guns after their 1950-53 war, but they remain divided by one of the world's most heavily fortified borders. Their leaders have met twice in the last decade, and warming relations have led to three joint North-South projects.

But Lee, a pro-U.S. conservative, has questioned implementing the accords reached at the two summits without condition — a stance that prompted the North to cut off ties with Seoul.

On Wednesday, Lee said he would not make any rash decisions.

"I will resolve North Korean issues from a long-term perspective and will not use inter-Korean relations for political purposes," he said in laying out his government's main policy directives for the new year.

President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, has said he would be willing to hold direct talks with the North.

South Korea and five other nations have sought to coax North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, to abandon its nuclear program by offering aid for disarmament. The process has been held up over verification of its past nuclear activities.

Meanwhile, South Korean lawmakers tied themselves together and formed a human chain around the Parliament speaker's podium Wednesday, the sixth day of a protest to prevent Lee's party from ramming through legislation before it adjourns for the year.

Legislators from the main opposition Democratic Party have locked themselves inside the National Assembly's main hall since Dec. 26 to prevent Lee's Grand National Party from passing dozens of bills they oppose — including ratification of a free trade pact with the United States.

A week earlier, opposition lawmakers used sledgehammers to pound their way into a committee room where ruling party lawmakers were meeting to introduce the bill to ratify the U.S. free trade pact.

That clash ended in violence, with hammers splintering doors and lawmakers inside reportedly fighting back by spraying water from fire extinguishers.

The assembly session continues until Jan. 8, but the ruling party had said it planned to introduce about 80 bills on New Year's Eve, including the free trade agreement's ratification.

The free trade pact — backed by the president and signed last year — still needs ratification by the South Korean and U.S. legislatures, and Lee's administration is eager for quick action.