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New Unification Minister Committed to Restoring Inter-Korean Ties



South Korea’s new Unification Minister Lee In-young is making active efforts toward an improvement in the stalled inter-Korean relations. Following President Moon Jae-in’s approval on July 27, Lee immediately started his term without an inauguration ceremony. The former floor leader of the Democratic Party demonstrated his ability to push ahead with policies and led the ruling party’s victory in the general elections. He had been cited as a key candidate for unification minister to carry out long-suspended inter-Korean projects effectively. Here is Dr. Oh Gyeong-seob at the Korea Institute for National Unification to introduce the new Unification Minister in more detail.

Lee served as floor leader of the Democratic Party from May 2019 to May 2020. He worked as a member of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and unification, and chairman of the special committee for inter-Korean economic cooperation. The four-term lawmaker has shown a deep interest in issues related to North Korea and unification since he was a university student. In 1987, he was the president of Korea University’s student council as well as the inaugural president of the National Council of Student Representatives, which was the nation’s largest college students’ group at the time. Now, as the Unification Minister, he has expressed his strong commitment to improving cross-border ties, raising hopes for smoother inter-Korean dialogue.

Upon Lee’s appointment, the process of inter-Korean cooperation, which the Moon Jae-in government has constantly stressed, began to speed up. He expressed his intention to immediately resume inter-Korean humanitarian exchanges. In related news, the Ministry of Unification said last week that it approved a private research center’s plan to deliver supplies worth about 670-thousand US dollars to North Korea for COVID-19 prevention and control efforts.

The items include disinfectants, protective suits and test kits. It marks the first approval of a shipment to North Korea since Lee became unification minister.

The Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Institute applied for an exemption from the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee on North Korea to send quarantine supplies as well as thermal imaging cameras. These were to be used at schools, ports and hospitals in North Pyongan Province in North Korea. 

Lee approved the shipment, but the government did not disclose who would receive it. It remains to be seen if North Korea will accept the delivery by the South Korean institute. Through the permission, the new South Korean unification minister made it clear that Seoul is committed to dialogue with Pyongyang.

On July 31, Lee visited Jejin Station in Gangwon Province. At South Korea’s northernmost train station on the east coast, he mentioned the possibility of resuming the Mt. Geumgang tour program in the form of individual tours. The following day, he attended a walking event in Yangyang in the same province. After assuming his post as unification minister, he spent his first weekend in Gangwon Province, which is close to the inter-Korean border.

During a meeting of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and unification on August 3, he actively refuted the argument of opposition party members who denounced the government’s push for a legal revision to ban the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets to North Korea. The opposition party criticized the move for infringing on freedom of expression, but Lee claimed that it is aimed at ensuring the safety of residents in border areas.

North Korea has demanded that the South resume the Gaeseong Industrial Park project and the Mt. Geumgang tour program. Attention turns to how the South Korean unification minister will deal with issues related to inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Regarding the government’s plan to ban the distribution of propaganda leaflets into North Korea, Lee admitted that civic activists might justify the leaflet campaign in light of freedom of expression. But he argued that the campaign would jeopardize the lives, safety and properties of local residents in border regions. He argued it would also hinder inter-Korean relations so it should be dealt with in a legal and systemic way.

However, the international community has expressed concerns that banning the campaign may violate the right to freedom of expression and also restrict activities of North Korean defectors and civic groups. Having these worries in mind, the South Korean government should be careful in legislating and implementing a ban on sending such leaflets into North Korea.

Meanwhile, many experts point out that Lee’s remarks about inter-Korean relations are rather unrealistic. They say that Lee might send a wrong signal to North Korea, if he only delivers a message of dialogue and cooperation, not requesting North Korea’s denuclearization.

Lee agrees, in principle, on the need to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. But it is important how South Korea will elicit North Korea’s denuclearization. It is also crucial how the South can deter North Korea’s nuclear armament. In reality, this is as important as peace efforts. North Korea has continued with nuclear weapons development, while the U.N. has strengthened sanctions against the North. In this situation, it is very difficult to develop South-North relations. 

If Seoul only pushes for dialogue and cooperation with Pyongyang and remains silent about North Korea’s denuclearization, the North may mistakenly believe that the South will turn a blind eye to North Korea’s nuclear weapons or that it will provide aid to the North regardless of international sanctions. Therefore, when talking about North Korea-related issues, the government needs to mention specific measures to solve the nuclear issue.

In the second half of the year, South Korea will see some factors that could determine the fate of the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the U.S. presidential election in November will greatly influence the future course of nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. as well as inter-Korean relations.

It is difficult for North Korea-U.S. dialogue to move forward for now, due to the presidential election in the U.S.  Whoever is elected, North Korea-U.S. relations are very unlikely to make progress unless Pyongyang implements complete denuclearization. Under these circumstances, it is even more difficult to advance inter-Korean relations, with the South Korean government’s role restricted. The government should make diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to carry out denuclearization and to facilitate the process of reaching a compromise between the North and the U.S.  At present, this is what the South Korean government should do in order to mend inter-Korean ties.

South Korea’s new unification minister is firmly determined to improve inter-Korean relations. Seoul’s new diplomatic and security lineup, including Lee, is entrusted with a grave mission to reactivate the stalled inter-Korean relations and lay the groundwork for peace on this divided peninsula. We hope the government will come up with specific measures to enable the two Koreas to take the lead in addressing regional issues and devise a carefully-planned strategy to resolve the nuclear issue.

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