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Unification minister nominee pledges to put Seoul in lead on NK issues

Nominee says US-NK relations likely to remain rocky for near future

Unification Minister nominee Rep. Lee In-young of the ruling Democratic Party answers questions at the confirmation hearing on Thursday. Yonhap
Unification Minister nominee Rep. Lee In-young of the ruling Democratic Party answers questions at the confirmation hearing on Thursday. Yonhap

Unification Minister nominee Lee In-young said Thursday that he will focus on having Seoul take the lead on North Korean issues, ushering in the “time of the South and North.”

Lee, a fourth-term lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party, also mentioned the Seoul-Washington working group on North Korean issues and US Forces Korea, saying the working group has a role in resolving the issues on the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking at his confirmation hearing, Lee said that while inter-Korean relations and US-North Korea dialogue are the two rails on which the “Korean Peninsula peace train” runs, improving inter-Korean relations is the key to progress.

“(I) will bring about bold changes to turn ‘the time of the North and the US’ into ‘the time of the South and North,’” Lee said, referring to the way that US-North Korea dialogue has taken priority over inter-Korean relations in recent years.

Saying peace on the Korean Peninsula can only be established if both inter-Korean relations and US-North Korea relations move forward at the same time, Lee added that restoring inter-Korean relations is essential if those two elements are to achieve “parallel progress.”

The nominee also said he “will not hesitate” to go to Pyongyang as a special envoy if the chance arises.

Addressing criticism of the South Korea-US working group, which some say has constrained Seoul’s creative approach to inter-Korean engagement, Lee said it cannot be denied that the working group has a role to play.

“Its function (of) efficiently dealing with North Korean sanctions cannot be completely denied,” Lee said when asked if he believes the working group needs changes.

But Lee also said Seoul can act on its own on matters that do not concern sanctions.

“In the area of humanitarian cooperation, which is not subject to sanctions, (Seoul) can decide and move independently,” he said. He added that matters that come under humanitarian cooperation could lead to trade.

On US-North Korea relations, Lee projected that relations might remain difficult even after the US presidential election.

“I think there is a high chance that (difficulties) will continue until the US presidential election,” Lee said, adding that there is also a chance that those conditions might not change “for some time” after the election.

On matters regarding US Forces Korea, Lee expressed support for its presence in the South.

“In relation to withdrawal of USFK, I think is it right for them to be stationed (in Korea),” Lee said.

“I think that there is a need for the Korea-US alliance to be maintained, in militaristic terms, with regards to the balance of power in Northeast Asia.”

On the matter of joint military drills between South Korea and the US, Lee suggested “flexibility,” saying the North’s response would change accordingly.

“If the exercise is held as planned, the North’s opposition will be stronger. If the exercise is put off, (the North) could take it as a completely new message,” Lee said.

“If flexibility is exercised, such as downscaling, or pulling back the area of operation to south of the Han River, the North will react accordingly.”

Lee’s past connection to a pro-North Korean student organization also came under fire from the main opposition United Future Party.

Lee served as the first chairman of a now-defunct association of leaders of university student bodies. Although the group’s formation was prompted by student activism against the military dictatorship of the time, it became associated with a pro-North Korean movement and was dissolved in 1993.

At the hearing, United Future Party Rep. Tae Young-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, homed in on Lee’s past association with the group and pressed Lee to state that he does not adhere to the North’s “juche” ideology. Juche is a North Korean concept that stresses self-reliance.

In response, Lee hit back, saying Tae appears to lack an understanding of democracy and that freedom of thought is guaranteed in South Korea, but stated that he has never been a follower of the juche ideology.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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