By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, Aug. 30 (Yonhap) -- South Korea President Lee Myung-bak's move to replace a hard-line point man on North Korea raised a cautious hope for improved ties with the communist country.
Lee named his confidant Yu Woo-ik as South Korea's new unification minister in charge of relations with North Korea in a Cabinet shake-up on Tuesday.
Yu, 61, served as Lee's chief of staff and is believed to have maintained a dialogue channel with North Korea since retiring as South Korea's ambassador to China in May.
The nominee, if confirmed by the legislature in a hearing seen largely as a formality, will replace Hyun In-taek, who championed a hard-line stance on North Korea for more than two years.
North Korea has frequently urged South Korea to dismiss Hyun, calling him "despicable human scum" and a "traitor" for his alleged move to escalate confrontations with the North.
Hyun's imminent departure raised cautious optimism that the two Koreas could mend fences that have been frayed over Pyongyang's two deadly attacks on the South last year.
"It is an indirect message to North Korea that South Korea will be flexible toward the North and seek a gradual shift" of its policy, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.
Lee, however, hinted that he would not make a drastic change in his policy toward Pyongyang by appointing the outgoing minister as his special advisor for unification affairs, said Kim.
Tensions have persisted between the two divided Koreas over Pyongyang's sinking of a South Korean warship in March last year and shelling of a South Korean border island in November.
South Korea has called for North Korea to apologize for the attacks before the divided countries can put their strained relations back on track. Still, the North has refused to take responsibility for the provocations that killed 50 South Koreans.
The cabinet reshuffle comes amid diplomatic efforts to resume long-stalled talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs in return for aid and political concessions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il called for a quick resumption of the nuclear talks without any preconditions. Kim made the remarks during his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the eastern Siberian city of Ulan-Ude last week.
The North quit the disarmament talks in 2009, though it has since repeatedly expressed its desire to return to the talks that involve South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
Top nuclear envoys between the two Koreas met on the sidelines of a regional security meeting in Indonesia in July. The talks later paved the way for a rare meeting between North Korea and the United States on how to resume the stalled nuclear talks that also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
South Korea is also feeling the burden for the continuous tensions with North Korea ahead of next year's general and presidential elections, according to experts.
"Yu appears likely to make efforts to create an atmosphere for the improved relations between the two Koreas," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
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