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(LEAD) New gov't to downsize Unification Ministry

All Headlines 19:15 February 17, 2008

(ATTN: ADDS with ministerial reorganization timetable from para 10)

SEOUL, Feb. 17 (Yonhap) -- The incoming conservative government is expected to downsize the Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs should the ministry be kept as a separate entity, sources in the presidential transition team said Sunday.

The ministry was originally slated to be merged with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but stringent opposition from the liberal camp has led to negotiations that may keep it intact.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) had called for five out of 18 ministries to be merged as part of broader efforts to streamline the government. The former Seoul mayor and construction company CEO, slated to take office on Feb. 25, has also said that the unification issue should be placed under foreign policy to enhance coordination with the other members of the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea.

Sources said that if the ministry is retained, its five divisions and one office may be reduced to a single office and three bureaus, with part of its work transferred to the other ministries.

The ministry's five division headquarters -- including unification policy, economic cooperation and cultural exchange -- are likely to be reorganized into smaller bureaus, with public relations and information analysis to come under the direct control of the minister.

The office in charge of the Kaesong industrial complex may be turned over to the newly created Ministry of Knowledge-based Economy.

However, the ministry may retain control of inter-Korean dialogue headquarters, the inter-Korean transit office, and a settlement support team for people who have fled North Korea.

The pro-government United New Democratic Party wants to retain the Unification Ministry, as well as the ministries of maritime affairs and fisheries, gender equity and family, and the Rural Development Administration.

But the GNP said it can permit only the Unification Ministry to remain, although it has hinted about allowing a minister-level official to head the gender equality committee that will be charged with helping to promote women's rights.

The two sides are to meet on Monday to iron out outstanding differences, with observers predicting tough talks unless concessions are made.

Political pundits said that if a deal is reached at the last minute, the government reorganization bill could be forwarded to parliament on Tuesday.

If parliament votes to pass the reorganization bill, Lee will be able to formally announce his Cabinet lineup and ask lawmakers for a confirmation hearing to check the qualifications of the candidates. He announced a list of candidates for 13 ministries last week.

Experts, however, said that because the confirmation hearing of the next prime minister does not begin until Wednesday and a vote by lawmakers will not take place until after the new president takes office, the new ministers will not be officially given their credentials before the inauguration.

Under South Korean law, only the prime minister has the power to recommend candidates for Cabinet posts.


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