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(LEAD) Unification minister nominee pledges flexibility toward N. Korea

All Headlines 15:52 August 31, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with analysts' comments; ADDS background; minor edits)
By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Aug. 31 (Yonhap) -- The nominee to lead South Korea's policy toward North Korea said Wednesday that he will explore ways to exert "flexibility" in dealing with the communist neighbor.

"I plan to maintain the government's stance toward the North in a consistent manner," Yu Woo-ik said. "Still, I will ponder if there could be room to exercise flexibility, if necessary for substantial development of inter-Korean ties."

He made the comment in a brief meeting with reporters after being tapped to become the next unification minister in a Cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday.

Yu, who served as chief of staff for President Lee Myung-bak and later Seoul's ambassador to China, will replace Hyun In-taek, who championed a hard-line stance on North Korea for more than two years.

An official appointment is expected to take weeks as the nominee has to appear before parliamentary confirmation hearings seen largely as a formality.

The North has warned inter-Korean ties won't be repaired as long as Hyun stays in office, denouncing him as "despicable human scum" and a "traitor."

The replacement has raised guarded hope that Seoul could try to improve relations with Pyongyang amid diplomatic efforts to resume long-stalled talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

In July, North Korean diplomats held separate talks with South Korean and U.S. counterparts in Indonesia and New York, respectively, on how to resume the disarmament talks that also involve China, Japan and Russia.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has also recently called for a quick resumption of the nuclear talks his country quit in 2009.

Yu's comment could be a starting point for Seoul to pursue dialogue with North Korea, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

The nominee stopped short of saying whether Seoul will be flexible in its longstanding demand for an apology from the North for its two deadly attacks on the South last year.

The North has so far refused to take responsibility for the sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of a South Korean border island.

Paik Hak-soon, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, an independent think tank near Seoul, voiced concern that there won't be any breakthrough in inter-Korean relations unless Seoul changes its stance toward Pyongyang.

The nomination could be "just for domestic political consumption," Paik said, noting the North distrusts South Korea.


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