Efforts to improve relations between North and South Korea have taken another step forward, but, there has also been a setback, with the resignation of a key South Korean cabinet official.
In an expected reshuffle, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung appointed several new cabinet officials Friday, including a new minister to oversee reunification efforts with North Korea.
Former foreign minister and ambassador to China, Hong Soon-young, will take over from Lim Dong-won, who stepped down after a no-confidence vote against him in Parliament on Monday.
Despite the no-confidence motion, the president vowed to continue his co-called sunshine policy of engaging North Korea. South Korea's political opposition has been critical of engagement, saying Pyongyang is giving little in return.
The Korean peninsula has been living under a tense armed truce for nearly 50 years.
Chun In-young is a professor at Seoul National University. He says Mr. Lim's resignation is regarded as a major loss by Pyongyang. "North Korea's must have been very concerned with that because Minister Lim was, from North Korea's viewpoint," Mr. Chun said, "a very dependable dialogue partner and very understanding and very moderate and liberal. So it was a loss for President Kim but also for North Korea."
But Mr. Kim received a boost Thursday when North Korea accepted a South Korean proposal to restart peace talks in Seoul on September 15. That came after the North on Sunday called for resuming the two nation's dialogue following a six month halt in contacts.
But Pyongyang lashed out against Washington Friday. In a statement to mark the 56th anniversary Saturday of the post-World War II arrival of U.S. troops in South Korea, North Korea accused the United States of blocking its peace talks with Seoul. The North Korean statement calls the 37,000 American troops based in South Korea "harassers of peace."
Professor Chun says that Pyongyang's mixed messages can be difficult to interpret. "When you look at the signals coming from North Korea, it is conflicting," he says. "They send not only that kind of confrontational message but also messages implying some kind of reconciliation or improving relations with the United States. So it is up to the United States, which signal it is going to take."
The attack came just after senior officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo to discuss North Korea policy. They called on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to make good on his pledge to visit South Korea and to consider international concerns about his nation's nuclear and weapons programs.