SEOUL – An academic and former head of a research institute was Friday appointed as Seoul’s new unification minister, the South’s key point of contact on inter-Korean affairs.
The appointment of Kim Yeon-chul comes days after the U.S. and North Korea held a second much-anticipated summit in Vietnam, but failed to reach any agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Kim, a pro-engagement academic who has headed the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification since last year, is replacing Cho Myoung-gyon in the role, which is seen as key in inter-Korean relations.
Cho, who took the post in 2017, is a longtime civil servant who first joined the unification ministry in 1980.
He has participated in several meetings with his North Korean counterpart as part of a growing rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made headlines at their groundbreaking first summit in Singapore last year, but their commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was criticized as vague.
The no-deal outcome from their second meeting in Hanoi has been a disappointment for the South Korean president.
He had brokered the talks process between Washington and Pyongyang and touted the summit as a “remarkable breakthrough” for peace negotiations on the Korean Peninsula.
In spite of the collapse of the Hanoi summit, Moon said earlier this month Seoul would consult with the U.S. on ways to resume South Korean tourism to the North’s Mount Kumgang.
He said he would also discuss restarting operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where Southern firms used to be staffed by Northern workers.
Moon has been pushing for the resumption of both projects as he seeks to engage Pyongyang, but doing so would fall foul of sanctions imposed on the North.
The newly appointed Kim was a vocal critic of President Park Geun-hye’s decision to shutter the Kaesong firms in 2016, in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.
He also supported Moon when he used South Korea’s position as host of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to reopen communications with Pyongyang.
The appointment of Kim, a longtime confidant of Moon, comes as part of a cabinet reshuffle.
Kim has “expert knowledge on economic cooperation with North Korea and its nuclear issues,” the Blue House said.