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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a major cabinet reshuffle Friday dismissed Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon, nominating the current chairman of a government-funded think tank as his replacement.
Kim Yeon-chul, the current president of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), was chosen for his “specialty and insight in inter-Korean economic cooperation and the North Korean nuclear issue,” a presidential spokesperson said.
He will take up the position in the coming month, pending the approval of South Korea’s National Assembly.
Speaking at a briefing, the Blue House’s Kim Eui-keum said Kim Yeon-chul would bring both academic and on-the-ground experience to the role, and that he was well qualified to implement the Ministry of Unification (MOU)’s “major policy tasks… without any setbacks.”
“He is the right person… to actively implement the ‘new Korean peninsula regime’ for the realization of a new community of peace and cooperation by pushing forward the inter-Korean joint declarations expeditiously,” the presidential spokesperson told media.
The “new Korean Peninsula regime” initiative was announced by President Moon on March 1, and aims to see Seoul “take on a leading role” in preparing for unification.
It includes plans to establish a “new community of economic cooperation” between Seoul and Pyongyang, with the South Korean President saying he planned to discuss the resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and Mount Kumgang tourism with the U.S.
In addition to his work with KINU, Kim Yeon-chul has recently served as an advisor on unification affairs for the presidential National Security Office (NSO) and a member of the advisory committee in preparation for last year’s third inter-Korean summit.
He also worked as a professor at the Department of Korean Unification at Inje University between 2010-18 and as head of a peace institute affiliated with the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper from 2008 to 2010.
Kim also has ties to the former administration of Roh Moo-hyun, having worked as a policy advisor to then-Minister of Unification Chung Dong-young and a member of the presidential committee on national planning.
Kim also served as chief researcher at the North Korean team of the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) between 1997 and 2002.
He has in recent years been outspoken about his belief that international sanctions against North Korea should be relaxed in order to encourage the country to denuclearize.
“The use of sanctions must be changed in… negotiations over denuclearization,” Kim said in a contribution to the Hankyoreh in January. “There is a right time for every means to take effect. It is high time to utilize the means of easing sanctions.”
Relaxation of sanctions would lead to the improvement of the civilian economy and quality of life of North Koreans, he argued.
“If the dreams of the North Korean leader can be squared with a new future for North Koreans, it will be an irreversible transition and serve as a strong impetus to denuclearization.”
In an interview with local outlet Money Today the same month, Kim also said the U.S. “must actively review the easing of sanctions.”
Speaking to NK News last year, he also expressed skepticism about the U.S. policy of military and economic pressure on North Korea, urging Washington to resume negotiations with Pyongyang.
“Without talks, it’s hard to find solutions,” Kim said. “Therefore, they should put efforts into resolving the issue by dealing with North Korea as it is.”
He has argued that the reopening of the KIC would not necessarily violate sanctions, saying at a lecture at the National Assembly in late February that the facility was “critical” to improving relations between the two Koreas.
“The benefits that our corporations could gain from the Kaesong Industrial Complex are incomparably greater than the payment to North Korea,” he said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification