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(LEAD) Unification minister nominee calls for progress in inter-Korean relations to bolster nuclear talks

North Korea 11:42 March 26, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS more info, remarks in para 8, last 6 paras, byline; CHANGES photo)
By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 26 (Yonhap) -- Unification minister nominee Kim Yeon-chul said Tuesday that South and North Korea should deepen relations in order to move denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States forward and establish lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking at his confirmation hearing, Kim also vowed to seek close coordination with Washington and the international community in seeking to deepen cross-border relations and find a solution to the nuclear conundrum.

"What is important for now is to get the North Korea-U.S. negotiations restarted at an early date to make sure that the hard-won Korean Peninsula denuclearization and peace process won't lose momentum," Kim told lawmakers at the start of his confirmation hearing. "To this end, our role is very important."

"In order to encourage the resumption of North Korea-U.S. dialogue and help lasting peace take root, it is necessary to deepen South-North Korea relations in a consistent manner," he added.

Since the breakdown of last month's summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korea has intensified its push to play a role of mediator between Pyongyang and Washington by bridging a gap in their demands and keeping stalled denuclearization talks going.

Unification Minister nominee Kim Yeon-chul speaks during his confirmation hearing on March 26, 2019. (Yonhap)

Seoul wants to push for various cross-border projects with North Korea on the hope that they could encourage Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. Reopening a shuttered industrial complex, in the North's border town of Kaesong, and restarting tours to Mount Kumgang have been frequently cited as possible cooperation.

South Korea closed the Kaesong industrial park in 2016 in retaliation for the North's nuclear and missile provocations. The tour program to Mount Kumgang was halted in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean soldier.

In his New Year's Day address, North Korean leader Kim expressed a willingness to open the two cross-border projects without preconditions.

Washington, however, balks at such projects as their resumption could undermine the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang at a time when little progress has been made in denuclearization talks.

Kim, professor and head of a Seoul-based think tank, is known for his support for more active inter-Korean economic cooperation and criticism of sanctions imposed on North Korea. He has said that such restrictions have not been effective in forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Since his nomination, he has been under fire for what conservatives claim to be his pro-North Korea remarks in his books, columns and social media.

He, in particular, drew criticism over his op-ed piece in a weekly magazine in 2010 in which he called the killing of a South Korean woman by a North Korean solider at the North's Mount Kumgang in 2008 a "rite of passage" that was destined to happen.

In a 2011 interview with a local media outlet, he also said that the North's torpedoing of a South Korean warship in 2010 that left 46 sailors dead was an "accidental incident" that resulted from the then conservative government's failure to implement previous inter-Korean agreements.

Kim apologized for making such "inappropriate" remarks, saying that he has been doing some "soul-searching" and that he will be careful with his words and behavior going forward.

He also expressed condolences to the families of those killed in the North Korean provocations, emphasizing that it is important to prevent such tragedies from happening again.


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