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South Korea Cabinet Shuffle Likely - 2001-09-04

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung is expected to conduct a sweeping cabinet reshuffle this week, after all of his ministers submitted their resignations. The mass resignation followed a Parliamentary vote for the dismissal of the president's key North Korean policy adviser. The vote in the assembly has seriously jeopardized Mr. Kim's personal efforts to reconcile the two Koreas before the end of his presidential term.

South Korea's Unification Minister, Lim Dong-won, tendered his resignation Tuesday with the rest of the cabinet.

Monday's vote in the assembly to dismiss Mr. Lim passed overwhelmingly triggering concerns that President Kim Dae-jung's so-called "sunshine" policy to open up North Korea was finished. "Lim Dong-won is the headmaster of the sunshine policy. He has made a great contribution to engaging the North," said South Korean political analyst Ok Nim-chung.

In addition to overseeing all aspects of North-South relations, the minister played a pivotal role in arranging last year's landmark summit in Pyongyang. The meeting was the first North South summit since the Korean War ended in an armed truce and left the two sides technically at war for more than 50 years. The hugely successful summit also earned President Kim a Nobel Peace Prize.

But in January, North Korea, unhappy with the perception that the Bush administration's was taking a harder stance against Pyongyang, froze all contacts with the South. Eager to resume reconciliation talks, Mr. Lim's ministry last month allowed a group of South Korean activists to attend joint Liberation Day celebrations in North Korea.

During the trip, however, some of the delegates allegedly participated in events that glorified the North Korean government. On Monday, outraged conservative opposition members in the South Korean National Assembly introduced the no-confidence motion to hold Mr. Lim personally accountable for the scandal.

Political professor Chun Hong-chan in Pusan says since January, a collective anger has replaced the optimism that flowed in South Korea after the summit. "I don't think the opposition party opposes the sunshine policy itself but many people think that we've had enough of it," he says. "The sunshine policy includes the hypothesis that if we give this much, then we will receive in kind. But we haven't received that kind of reward from the North."

Despite the anger and the demise of his unification minister, President Kim is expected to pursue his life-long dream of reconciling the divided Koreas before his term in office ends next year. But the task will be far from easy.

After the ruling party's coalition partner supported the no-confidence vote in Parliament, Mr. Kim declared that the partnership was over. Political observer Lee Sook-jong says that means Mr. Kim will no longer have a way to politically outmaneuver conservatives in the assembly. "The ruling party is not the majority party," she says. "So, if he's losing this coalition partner, it will be very difficult for President Kim to run policy and pass important laws."

Mr. Chun in Pusan agrees. He says the president's biggest challenge will not be in engaging Pyongyang further, but in keeping his opponents from killing his initiatives. "The president will go on with the sunshine policy. But the problem is some policies may need approval of the assembly. That kind of sunshine policy will have difficulty," Mr. Chun says.

Analysts say how President Kim fares in his remaining months in office could depend largely on North Korea. If Pyongyang decides to fully cooperate with Seoul on various issues, the gesture could generate popular support for the sunshine policy and help avoid a lame-duck presidency. But analysts say if there is to be better cooperation between the two sides in the future, the timing of it must not appear to be aimed at helping Mr. Kim's political career.

There is already strong suspicion brewing in South Korea about North Korea's sudden call to renew contacts. Pyongyang made the unexpected offer Sunday on the eve of Mr. Lim's no-confidence vote. Angry opposition leaders urged the government to disregard the offer saying it was a North Korean attempt to save the minister and to manipulate South Korean politics.