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(LEAD) Moon's decision to replace N. Korea point man signals more active cross-border exchanges

North Korea 17:06 March 08, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS nominee's comments in paras 16-17)

SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in's decision to replace his point man on North Korea appears to indicate his increased emphasis on inter-Korean relations as he pushes for more active cross-border cooperation on the belief that it could help advance the stalled nuclear talks, experts said Friday.

Kim Yeon-chul, professor and chief of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification think tank, was nominated Friday as the new unification minister handling inter-Korean affairs. He is to replace Cho Myoung-gyon, a career policymaker, who has served at the post since 2017.

The nomination, which is subject to a parliamentary confirmation hearing, comes as the Moon Jae-in government appears to be renewing its push to expand cross-border cooperation after the breakdown of last week's summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

"Armed with a solid theoretical base and field experiences, he appears to be well-suited for the post in terms of his understanding of President Moon's philosophy on inter-Korean relations and visions for reunification and ability to realize his pursuit of the peace economy," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

(LEAD) Moon's decision to replace N. Korea point man signals more active cross-border exchanges - 1

Kim, 54, is known for his strong support for active engagement with North Korea.

Kim earlier said that 2019 will be the year for the "implementation" in inter-Korean relations after the "turning point" that the two Koreas experienced last year, emphasizing it will be their top priority to address any obstacles standing in the way.

He believes that sanctions have been useless in forcing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, while urging sanctions relief to be used as a way to build mutual trust between the North and the U.S.

He, in particular, cited the reopening of such cross-border projects between the Koreas as the shuttered joint industrial park and the tours to Mount Kumgang in North Korea as a way to go.

South Korea closed the Kaesong complex in 2016 in retaliation for the North's missile and nuclear tests. The tour program was halted in 2008, when a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean guard.

President Moon and North Korean leader Kim held three inter-Korean summits last year and agreed to reduce tensions and bolster cross-border contacts. In the third and latest summit in September, the two agreed to resume the Kaesong complex and Mount Kumgang tours as soon as the right conditions are created.

The South Korean government had hoped that the Hanoi summit would be successful and lead to eased sanctions on Pyongyang, providing more leeway for Seoul to push for such joint projects. But it produced no deal, raising worries for a protracted stalemate in inter-Korean relations.

Despite the disappointing Hanoi summit, Seoul recently renewed its push for active cross-border cooperation, saying that more exchanges and better relations would boost a peace mood and help move stalled nuclear talks forward.

In his speech last week, Moon said he will push to reopen the Kaesong complex and tours to Mount Kumgang to open a "peace-driven economy" on the Korean Peninsula.

"I will help usher in an era of a peace-driven economy on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "We will consult with the United States on ways to resume tourism in Mount Kumgang and the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex."

Challenges, however, appear to remain high for accelerating inter-Korean cooperation as Washington has been toughening its stance on Pyongyang for denuclearization, saying it could ramp up sanctions if it does not denuclearize.

Asked if he thinks it will be possible to reopen the Kaesong industrial park and Mount Kumgang tours, the nominee told reporters later in the day that he "will have to make efforts." He declined, however, to elaborate further on the issue.

Instead, he emphasized that "creative solutions" will be required to keep talks going after the Hanoi summit, adding that he will do his best to realize the president's vision for the Korean Peninsula.

Experts also urged the nominee to come up with "creative" approach in dealing with pending issues.

"Career policymakers tend to follow the orders from above but could lack creativity," Cheong Seong-chang, a vice president at the Sejong Institute, said right after the summit ended in failure. "As a professor, Kim could be better suited than his predecessor in theoretically justifying what the president is pursuing and persuade other experts and the international community."


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