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South Korean President-Elect Seeks to Scrap Unification Ministry


South Korea's president-elect says he plans to do away with the ministry that has handled relations with North Korea for nearly 40 years. But, as VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, many of the lawmakers who would have to approve the plan are opposed to it.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak's plan is to fold the Unification Ministry into the Foreign Ministry. The move would be part of a broader government restructuring plan that would close four other ministries and parcel their duties out to various government departments.

Lee Kyung-suk, the head of incoming administration's transition team, said Wednesday that inter-Korean relations have changed since the Unification body was established in 1969.

She says North and South Korea have grown so close that the work of unifying the two sides should no longer be put in the hands of one specific ministry. Instead, she says, all South Korean government ministries should be involved in reconciliation efforts, but those efforts should be kept consistent with a broader foreign policy approach.

North and South Korea remain technically at war. A 1953 armistice halted fighting after the North invaded the South three years earlier. Neither formally recognizes the other as a separate country and each claims the right to speak for the entire peninsula.

They have, however, given de facto recognition to each other, by holding two presidential summits since 2000 and a host of inter-Korean economic and cultural projects expanding North-South contacts. The Unification Ministry has managed these relations for Seoul.

Kim Yong-hun, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Dongkuk University, says eliminating the ministry would be a mistake.

He says North Korea will take a pessimistic view of South Korea's intentions if the ministry is closed, because it has served as a counterbalance to North Korean structures in the past. He says North Korean authorities may feel President Lee is downgrading inter-Korean ties to just another foreign policy issue.

Incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun and his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, viewed North-South relations as a unique and delicate matter to be handled separately from other foreign policy processes - including, at times, multinational efforts to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons.

By contrast, President-elect Lee says North-South relations will depend on Pyongyang's progress in eliminating its nuclear programs.

The Lee administration will have an uphill battle to gain the necessary parliamentary approval for the move. Most of the conservative president-elect's liberal opponents, who still hold a legislative majority, issued statements Wednesday opposing the plan.

Kim Byung-ki, an international relations professor at Seoul's Korea University, says Lee will probably compromise and allow some scaled-back form of the Unification Ministry to exist.

"What the Unification Ministry will probably be geared toward would be to make sure that concrete policy toward North Korea is coordinated, consistent, logical, and continuous," Kim said. "But I don't think its main role will be to be the lead agency in unilaterally giving aid to North Korea."

Lee Myung-bak is scheduled to be sworn in as president on February 25.

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