(LEAD) New unification minister vows to use economic cooperation with N. Korea to move peace process forward
(ATTN: RECASTS lead; ADDS more comments in paras 11-12; UPDATES with minor edits throughout)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, April 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new point man on North Korea pledged Monday to try to use inter-Korean economic cooperation as a catalyst to move the hard-won peace process with the communist neighbor forward.
Kim Yeon-chul, newly sworn in as unification minister, made the remarks in his inauguration speech Monday. He replaced Cho Myoung-gyon, who had served as unification minister handling inter-Korea affairs under the Moon Jae-in government since July 2017.
"It is time for us to reap the fruits of peace that we have sown so far," Kim said. "We need to seize the opportunity for co-prosperity of the South and the North. We never know when such a chance will come again if we miss it.
"I will work hard to strengthen a virtuous circle in which we strengthen peace by using business as a link and strengthen economic cooperation (with North Korea) again based on the peace," he added.
Kim did not mention any particular economic cooperation with North Korea, but he has supported the reopening of suspended cross-border projects, such as an industrial complex in the North's border town of Kaesong and tours to Mount Kumgang on the North's east coast.
South Korea wants to push for various cross-border projects with North Korea on the hope that they could incentivize Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table, but the United States balks at the idea as it could undermine the global sanctions regime against the North amid little progress in nuclear talks.
Seoul 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.
Kim emphasized the importance of building inter-Korean relations in a consistent manner.
"What is the most important thing at this point is to advance the peace trend that started last year to an irreversible stage," Kim said. "By advancing and institutionalizing inter-Korean relations, we should lay the firm foundation toward our people's aspiration for peaceful unification.
"We should put an end to the unfortunate history of inter-Korean relations that have moved and stopped over and over again," he added.
Explaining his emphasis on cross-border cooperation with North Korea during a brief meeting with reporters later in the day, Kim said that there should be an outcome that people can see in the process of establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The minister added that many challenges lie ahead in achieving his objective but vowed to draw up relevant measures by giving them sufficient consideration.
Kim, an expert on North Korean affairs and former head of a Seoul-based think tank, is known for his strong 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.
In his confirmation hearing held in late March, he sympathized with the importance of deepening inter-Korean relations to help get stalled denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. started again after their summit breakdown in February.
He noted, however, the resumption of such cross-border projects as the Kaesong industrial park will not be possible without resolving issues related to sanctions on North Korea, adding that he will seek solutions on the issue through close consultation with the U.S.
Saying that North Korea cannot pursue economic growth and nuclear weapons development at the same time, he also said that the North's recent emphasis on the economic side should be utilized in speeding up its denuclearization process.
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