January 3, 2008 / 8:03 AM / 10 years ago

New South Korea leader could make North "ordinary"

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s new president could ditch the ministry that has long handled relations with North Korea, heralding what may be a major shift in the way Seoul deals with its prickly neighbour, aides were quoted as saying.

The Unification Ministry has been at the centre of growing criticism that the outgoing government has been too soft on the communist North, pouring aid across the border despite internationally condemned missile and nuclear tests.

Members of President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s team feel it has drifted off course, one adviser said.

“Many officials in the transition team take a negative view of the role and function of the Unification Ministry,” Korea University professor Nam Sung-wook, an adviser to the team, was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency on Thursday.

Surveys show most South Koreans want eventual unification of the peninsula divided for over half a century, but not while the hermit state is so down-at-heel that it risks sucking the energy out of their own economy.

Yonhap said the transition team is thinking of disbanding the ministry or merging it with the Foreign Ministry.

It quoted Unification Ministry officials as saying they fear the North would see the move as reducing it to just an “ordinary” country.

One analyst said a likely outcome would be for a diminished ministry with some of its functions parcelled out.

With parliamentary elections in April, Lee was unlikely to eradicate the ministry completely and risk upsetting voters who want their brothers in the North to still be shown special concern.

Currently, the foreign ministry represents South Korea in international talks to end the North’s nuclear arms programme but it is the Unification Ministry which oversees relations between the two.

Lee, who takes office on February 25, talked tough on North Korea throughout his election campaign, promising to link future aid to North Korea’s behaviour.

Analysts said the new approach is rattling the Pyongyang government.

“For the past 10 years, North Korea has been spoiled by the progressive (South Korean) regimes,” said Kim Sung-han, an expert on Korean affairs at Korea University in Seoul.

“North Korea is really pondering the new environment.”

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher

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