Unification Minister Hyun In-taek has been replaced by Yu Woo-ik, formerly President Lee Myung-bak's chief of staff and ambassador to China. Hyun has maintained the principle that the North must take responsibility for the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year before there can be any inter-Korean talks about other matters.
North Korea has accused Hyun of being confrontational and hostile to reunification, and leftwing groups in South Korea too have long demanded his exit. Even the ruling Grand National Party wanted Hyun replaced because they worry that strained inter-Korean ties could be a major hurdle for them in next year's presidential election.
The replacement has given rise for speculation that the Lee Myung-bak administration's North Korea policy is about to undergo major changes. Yu said in a press conference on Wednesday, "I plan to maintain the consistency of North Korea policy" but added, "I intend to put some thought into whether there are areas that require flexibility if necessary for concrete progress in South-North relations."
Yu did not answer the question whether he will seek an inter-Korean summit directly, saying only, "I will faithfully execute the duty of the Unification Ministry to improve inter-Korean relations without missing the trends of the times after comprehensively reviewing international conditions and the expectations of the public."
Yu was Lee's first presidential chief of staff, but resigned when massive demonstrations over a mad cow disease scare paralyzed the country for weeks. Now he has returned to the center of power. He may hope to help the president achieve a milestone in relations with North Korea before his tenure ends. But he must remember that former President Roh Moo-hyun signed scores of agreements with North Korea just two months before his term ended, but those pacts became so many scraps of paper and only served as obstacles when the new government came in and tried to come up with a new North Korea policy.
Every previous administration has sought to achieve fundamental changes in relations with the North, but they ended up preventing healthy relations between the two Koreas as Pyongyang saw improved ties merely as an opportunity to extract more money. Scores of contacts between the two sides during the 10 years of the Sunshine Policy of rapprochement made it appear as if inter-Korean relations were changing dramatically. But everyone in the South knows now that every penny that flowed to the North was used to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.
North Korea policy must be approached from a long-term perspective, rather than just the five-year term of a president, and with the humility of laying the crucial groundwork for a much larger structure. The Lee administration has been criticized for straining relations with North Korea, but it has also taught the North that it must pay the price for its provocations.
A president nearing the end of his term has a tough enough time just keeping things ticking over. The government must realize that drastic changes toward the end of the presidential term, at a time when North Korea is fully aware of the needs and limitations of the Lee administration, could cause Seoul to fall victim once again to the traps laid by Pyongyang.