Does the Cabinet Reshuffle Signal Change in N.Korea Policy?

President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday replaced Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, who was singled out by politicians as responsible for strained ties with North Korea. But Cheong Wa Dae stressed that its North Korea policy remains unchanged. Yu Woo-ik, who previously served as Lee's chief of staff and ambassador to China, will succeed Hyun.

◆ Gov't Denies Policy Change

A senior Cheong Wa Dae official said, "We worried that the replacement could send the wrong signal" that policies toward North Korea may change. "That is why we appointed Hyun presidential special advisor on reunification affairs."

The government feels that any change in North Korea policy must be preceded by an apology from Pyongyang for the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year. South Korea recently delivered W5 billion (US$1=W1,073) worth of disaster relief goods to North Korea and is increasing humanitarian assistance for infants and children in the North, but Seoul maintains that no fundamental improvements in inter-Korean relations can be made unless the North changes its ways.

"Even before Hyun was replaced, we already resumed humanitarian assistance for North Korea and engaged in contact behind the scenes, so communication was not entirely cut off," said Dong Young-seung of the Samsung Economic Research Institute. "A new minister does not mean a major shift in North Korea policy."

Yu Woo-ik (left) shakes hand with President Lee Myung-bak after receiving his letter of appointment as Korean ambassador to China at Cheong Wa Dae in December 2009. Yu Woo-ik (left) shakes hand with President Lee Myung-bak after receiving his letter of appointment as Korean ambassador to China at Cheong Wa Dae in December 2009.

But the outgoing minister held to a strict quid-pro-quo approach in dealing with North Korea, while ruling Grand National Party lawmakers close to minister-designate Yu say he feels that a breakthrough is needed in inter-Korean relations and that can be achieved by a summit. They believe Yu is on the same page as Presidential Chief of Staff Yim Tae-hee, who has supported an inter-Korean summit.

◆ Experts Doubt Gov't Assurances

When he was ambassador to China, Yu apparently sought to open communication channels with the North Korean embassy there. Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kim Du-woo in a press conference announcing the Cabinet reshuffle said the policy will change "a little" when the new minister arrives and added Yu "has his own ideas and political leanings."

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said, "If Hyun stuck to principles, Yu is a pragmatist who focuses on results. The Lee Myung-bak administration sought to handle North Korea through a confrontational approach over the past three-and-a-half years, but this didn't work, so Yu will try to improve relations with a more flexible approach."

And Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University, said, "The government seems to have been wary of upsetting conservatives with the latest reshuffle, but the overall direction points toward dialogue. If North Korea shows flexibility, the government is sending a message that it is willing to respond."

One expert familiar with the Lee administration's diplomacy and security policies, said Hyun was kept as a special advisor in order to dispel the image that the Lee administration has caved into the demands of leftwing factions, but the real situation is probably quite different. He warned North Korea "could mistakenly believe that Hyun was sacked and that they have gained the upper hand in negotiations with South Korea."

englishnews@chosun.com / Aug. 31, 2011 13:05 KST