South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak put a former ambassador to China in charge of North Korean affairs, in a move that may signal an easing of policies toward Kim Jong Il’s regime before next year’s elections.
Yu Woo Ik takes over from Hyun In Taek as Unification Minister, Lee’s office said in a statement yesterday. Hyun helped implement the harder stance toward North Korea that Lee promised when elected in 2008, and was vilified by state-run Korea Central News Agency as a “traitor” and inventor of “the confrontation policy.”
The appointment comes amid signs of a thaw in relations between the civil war foes, which soured last year over attacks that killed 50 South Koreans, with the two countries last month agreeing to try to revive talks on the North’s nuclear weapons. Lee may also be seeking a more moderate policy as he tries to restore his party’s popularity before elections next year.
“The relationship with North Korea has deteriorated too much and people think Lee is responsible for that,” said Paik Hak Soon, director of inter-Korean relations at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. “People are questioning whether the current policy on North Korea risks creating a military confrontation at a time when the global economy is in trouble.”
Lee’s approval rating plunged from 76 percent in the first week he took office in February 2008, to 33 percent last week, according to Realmeter, a South Korean polling firm in Seoul. While South Korean presidents are limited to one term in office, winning back voters will help Lee’s Grand National Party in the general and presidential polls next year.
No More Sunshine
Under Hyun, who was appointed in 2009 and once suggested abolishing the Unification Ministry, South Korea tied aid and engagement to North Korea’s progress in meeting commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. That approach rolled back the “sunshine policy” of engagement with Kim’s regime and echoed the policy set out by U.S. President Barack Obama of not rewarding “bad behavior.”
Hyun’s policies revealed his “true colors as a traitor to the nation and an anti-reunification maniac” eager to “ignite a war,” KCNA said last month, accusing him of “unpardonable acts of treachery.”
Yu, 61, is expected to play an “important role” in pursuing a peaceful unification policy and improving relations with North Korea as he served as President Lee’s first chief of staff and especially as a former ambassador to China, the presidential office said in a statement yesterday.
Yu was ambassador to China from December 2009 to May this year, and Lee’s chief of staff in 2008. He said today that his appointment won’t mark a change in policy toward North Korea, though he may seek ways to deal more “flexibly” with it, according to Yonhap News.
“Yu may be able to do something to improve relations with North Korea as he is close to President Lee and the Chinese government,” Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said before the reshuffle. “North Korea may see Yu’s appointment as a possible signal for a change in President Lee’s hard-line stance against it.”
The North Korean leader visited China four times in the past two years. China is the regime’s biggest benefactor, accounting for 83 percent of the North’s $4.2 billion in trade last year, according to the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. The North doesn’t release its own data.
Wu Dawei, China’s chief envoy to international talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, met with his South Korean counterpart Wi Sung Lac last week, China’s foreign affairs ministry said in a statement posted on its website.
Envoys from North and South Korea agreed last month to try to revive the talks. North Korean officials were subsequently invited to the U.S. for preliminary discussions.
‘Path Is Open’
“We reiterated that the path is open to North Korea towards the resumption of talks, improved relations with the United States, and greater regional stability, if North Korea demonstrates through its actions that it supports the resumption of the six-party process as a committed and constructive partner,” U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth said.
While the North has called for the talks to reopen, South Korea said an apology for the two attacks last year must come first, a condition North Korea has yet to meet. Kim last week met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Siberia.
The six-party negotiations, which last convened in December 2008, include the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
The North shelled a South Korean island in November, killing four people, and was blamed for sinking the Cheonan warship in March 2010, in which 46 sailors died.
Lee replaced his defense minister and army head following the shelling, vowing to strengthen the military and respond more harshly to any further North Korean attacks. South and North Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a cease-fire.
Three ministers were also replaced in the reshuffle. Rim Che Min replaces Chin Soo Hee as health and welfare minister, Choe Kwang Sik takes over from Choung Byoung Guk as culture minister and Kim Kum Lae will succeed Paik Hee Young as gender equality and family minister, according to yesterday’s statement.