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S Korea Replaces Foreign Minister Ahead of Bush Visit - 2002-02-04

South Korea's president replaced his foreign minister Monday, just weeks ahead of a key summit meeting with President Bush. Analysts say Washington and Seoul have some tough issues to work out, but they say the shift in South Korea's diplomatic leadership probably won't affect policy very much.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung replaced Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo with longtime diplomat Choi Sung-hong. Analysts say the newcomer is not well known to the Korean public.

The move followed several other cabinet changes last week sparked by an embarrassing influence-peddling scandal that has hurt President Kim Dae-jung's government politically.

One of the new foreign minister's first tasks will be to organize talks between President Kim and President Bush just weeks from now in Seoul, particularly over the subject of North Korea.

President Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to engage North Korea politically, including a historic summit meeting in the North in June, 2000, which sparked hopes of eventual reunification. The two Koreas have been separated in a tense armed truce for decades after their bitter war in the early 1950s.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Bush expressed great skepticism about North Korea and recently described Pyongyang as part of an "axis of evil," armed with missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Yonsei University Professor Jung-Hoon Lee says the Bush visit comes at a time when South Korea and the United States, two traditionally close allies, disagree over how much of a threat North Korea poses, and what to do about it.

"Obviously, the Bush administration sees North Korea in a very different light from the South Korean government," said Mr. Lee. "To put it very simply, the South Koran government claims that the North Korean government has changed for the better. That it is changing, continuing to change, as a result of the engagement policy. The Bush administration policy is that in spite of the engagement policy, North Korea has not changed at all. North Korea remains a major military threat on the Korean peninsula as well as the region as a whole."

The new foreign minister is part of an administration that faces strong domestic political opposition and has less than a year left in office. Professor Lee says that makes it unlikely that Mr. Choi will be able to carry out bold political or diplomatic initiatives.