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2009/01/22 10:08 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 38 (January 22, 2009)


President Lee Names Scholar As New Unification Minister

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Unification Minister was replaced for the first time in 11 months as part of President Lee Myung-bak's partial Cabinet reshuffle on Jan. 19.

   Hyun In-taek, a Korea University professor of political science, was named to replace Kim Ha-joong as Seoul's new pointman on North Korea.

   Hyun was a key North Korea advisor to Lee during his presidential election campaign in 2007 and helped craft the centerpiece of Lee's North Korea policy -- making Pyongyang's total abandonment of its nuclear program a prerequisite to South Korean economic aid.

   Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated considerably since the conservative South Korean president took office in February last year and rolled back his liberal predecessors' reconciliation policy.

   Hyun has been a vocal critic of the so-called "sunshine" policies of former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who gave nearly unconditional economic aid to the North.

   Lee's key election pled regarding North Korea -- called "Denuclearization, Openness, 3000" -- was Hyun's brainchild. The policy promises to help increase North Korea's per capita income to US$3,000 on condition that Pyongyang abandons its nuclear program and opens up economically to the international community.

   North Korea has called Lee's strategy "vicious." Critics say it would be humiliating for Pyongyang, whose central doctrine is "self-reliance," to accept the overtly capitalist idea.

   The outgoing minister, Kim Ha-joong, walked a tight rope as his authority was considerably limited by Lee's unflinching stance. Kim's close relations with China after more than six years as Seoul's ambassador to Beijing did not help as much as he had might have hoped in bridging the divide with Pyongyang.

   Kim's role was diminished further when Lee suspended tours to the North's scenic Mount Kumgang in July, following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist there. In December, Pyongyang expelled hundreds of South Koreans from a joint industrial complex at a North Korean border city and curtailed border traffic.

   In the latest offensive on Saturday, North Korea's military vowed to take an "all-out confrontational posture" against the South along a disputed maritime border.

   Kim's successor is an international diplomacy expert with a Ph.D. in international politics from the University of California, Los Angeles, but he has little experience on North Korea. Hyun's nomination demonstrates Lee's willingness to work closer with the new U.S. administration in dealing with Pyongyang, rather than try to take a new approach towards North Korea, analysts said.

   "Selecting Hyun rather than a North Korea expert as unification minister shows that Lee is holding to his position of strictly dealing with North Korea according to international standards rather than looking into the unique climate of inter-Korean relations," a North Korea scholar said, requesting anonymity.

   Some ministry officials voiced optimism, given Hyun's close relationship with Lee.

   "Considering Professor Hyun was the designer of the Lee government's North Korea policy, he will be able to get the president to understand his views," a senior official at the Unification Ministry said, requesting anonymity.


S. Korean Envoy Returns after Examining Nuclear Fuel Rods in N.K.

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's deputy nuclear envoy returned to Seoul from his trip to North Korea on Jan. 20, where he discussed the South's purchase of fresh fuel rods stored at the North's main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The envoy led a fact-finding mission to examine the condition of the fuel rods and study the economic and technical feasibility of buying them.

   Upon returning, however, Hwang Joon-kook said his rare discussions with North Korean officials in Pyongyang were confined to technical aspects and that he was limited in whom he could meet, indicating there was no immediate breakthrough in the stalled six-way disarmament talks and frosty inter-Korean relations.

   Hwang, head of the South Korean foreign ministry's North Korean nuclear issue bureau, said he was not allowed to visit the North's foreign ministry or meet its chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan. He had planned to deliver Seoul's position on the nuclear talks and inter-Korean ties if he had a chance to meet higher-ranking North Korean officials. "North Korea asked us to focus on the issue of unused fuel rods," Hwang told reporters.

   He led a team of South Korean officials and civilian nuclear experts on a fact-finding mission to decide whether to buy the fresh rods. Seoul said earlier it would consider buying the rods if they could be used at its civilian nuclear power plants. Hwang returned to Seoul via Beijing after a five-day stay in the North, as the two Koreas' border remains tightly sealed.

   His trip to North Korea drew keen media attention as it was the highest-level visit to the North by a South Korean official since President Lee Myung-bak took office with a tougher stance on Pyongyang.

   "We looked around the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon that are being disabled," Hwang said, adding that his team confirmed that about 14,800 unused fuel rods, which are equivalent to 100 tons of uranium, are stored at the Yongbyon complex. The materials are reportedly worth over US$10 million.

   Removing the fuel rods is one of the few remaining steps that Pyongyang has to take to disable the Yongbyon complex under a 2007 aid-for-denuclearization deal with South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

   North Korea apparently wants South Korea to purchase the roughly 15-year-old rods. "The North Korean side was very cooperative on related consultations," he said. "It is hard to answer, for now, whether we will be able to purchase the rods," he said. "An internal review is needed, and we have to share the results of this trip with the other related nations and consult with them."

   Hwang said he was briefed in detail on Pyongyang's disablement and its stance on denuclearization by Hyon Hak-bong, deputy chief of the U.S. affairs bureau at the North's foreign ministry. "I detected no big difference from North Korea's existing position," he said.

   Hwang's visit coincided with a series of acrimonious statements from the North over the weekend. The North's military on Jan. 17 declared an "all-out confrontational posture" against South Korea, citing the Lee Myung-bak administration's "hostile" policy. Separately, its foreign ministry said its denuclearization is unrelated to its pursuit of normalizing ties with Washington, in an apparent message to the incoming Obama administration.