New South Korean Minister Promises Flexibility Toward North

Posted August 31st, 2011 at 5:55 am (UTC-5)
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South Korea's new minister for relations with North Korea said Wednesday he will seek ways to be flexible in his dealings with Pyongyang.

Yu Woo-ik, who was appointed as unification minister in a cabinet reshuffle Tuesday, told reporters he will maintain the government's existing policies on North Korea. But, he said, he will look for ways to achieve substantial development in ties with the North.

Yu, a former ambassador to China, was named to replace Hyun In-taek, who was known for his hard-line stance toward Pyongyang. South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted sources this week as saying ruling party chairman Hong Joon-pyo had sought Hyun's replacement in order to improve relations with the North.

South Korean tourists visiting the heavily guarded border area were cautious about the prospects for improved relations Wednesday. The continuing tension was evident in the faces of the North and South Korean soldiers who face one another in eery silence in the border village of Panmunjom.

But South Korea stands to save billions of dollars on natural gas imports from Russia if a pipeline could be built across North Korea to the South. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after a summit meeting last week with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that Pyongyang supports the plan.

Yu was quoted Wednesday as saying he favors construction of a pipeline if it would benefit both Koreas.

Tensions between North and South Korea increased in recent years over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and a deadly maritime border dispute.

Relations eased somewhat when North Korea recently signaled it was ready to return to six-party negotiations on dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for aid.

In the cabinet reshuffle, President Lee Myung-bak also selected new ministers of culture, health and gender equality. The four will be formally appointed to the Cabinet after parliamentary confirmation hearings.