SEOUL, Aug 31 – South Korea’s new point man on North Korea said Wednesday he would try to be flexible in dealing with the communist country, signalling a push to improve relations after months of high tensions.
“I will consistently maintain the government’s policy on North Korea,” Yu Woo-Ik said, a day after he was nominated as new unification minister in charge of cross-border relations.
“Still, I will see if there is room to exercise flexibility, if necessary for substantial progress in relations,” he told reporters.
The former ambassador to China replaced Hyun In-Taek, seen as a hardliner. Hyun was the key architect of President Lee Myung-Bak’s North Korea policy which links major economic aid to progress on denuclearisation, a stance which enraged Pyongyang.
Ties have been icy since Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 South Korean lives.
The North denied involvement in the sinking but shelled a South Korean border island last November, killing four people including two civilians.
The South has demanded its neighbour accept blame for both deadly incidents before any substantial dialogue. But it shelved that condition to allow a rare meeting of nuclear envoys from the two sides to take place in Bali in July.
That meeting was followed by talks in New York between a senior North Korean official and his US counterparts, aimed at restarting stalled six-nation negotiations on the North’s nuclear disarmament.
The North quit the six-party talks in April 2009 and staged its second atomic weapons test a month later.
Yu will be formally appointed after parliamentary confirmation hearings, at which opponents can question the appointment but not block it.
He promised to map out policy “in consideration of international trends and (domestic) public expectations” and expressed support for a cross-border gas pipeline if such a project brings benefits to the two Koreas.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week after a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il that Pyongyang supports the proposed pipeline to carry Russian gas across the heavily-fortified border.
Medvedev said the pipeline would stretch more than 1,700 kilometres (1,000 miles) and start with volumes of up to 10 billion cubic metres per year.
Experts say the project could bring cash-strapped North Korea tens of millions of dollars a year in handling charges.
Kim Yong-Hyun, of Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Yu’s appointment signals a possible shift in policy towards Pyongyang.
“There will be no sudden turnaround in Lee’s policy on North Korea, but the reshuffle reflects Lee’s will to improve cross-border relations,” he told AFP late Tuesday.