From: Reuters
Published January 16, 2008 02:12 AM

South Korea's Lee aims to close ministry for North

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's new leader wants to ditch the ministry that has long handled relations with the North, have others absorb its functions and shift the way Seoul deals with its prickly neighbor, aides said on Wednesday.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak's transition team released a plan to streamline government that calls for shutting down, merging or downgrading six ministries, including the Unification Ministry.

"A new ministry of foreign affairs and unification will be created merging the functions of the foreign and unification ministries," senior transition team member Kim Hyong-o told a news conference.

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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.

Transition team members have said they felt the ministry has drifted too far off its original course and that North Korea should be treated as another foreign country, albeit the one of highest concern for policy-makers in the South.

Currently, the foreign ministry represents South Korea in international talks to end the North's nuclear arms program but it is the unification ministry that oversees relations between the two.

Lee, a conservative former mayor of Seoul who takes office on February 25, talked tough on North Korea throughout his election campaign, promising to link future aid to the North's behavior.

Liberals, who hold the upper hand in South Korea's parliament, said they would fight Lee's proposal to close the Unification Ministry, saying it would send the wrong message to the North, which is highly sensitive on symbolism.

Liberals are expected to lose control of the National Assembly in an April general election when Lee's conservative Grand National Power is pegged to emerge as the dominate party.

North Korea has not mentioned Lee in its official media after he won the December 19 vote. Analysts said this is because Pyongyang's leaders have not figured out the policy direction they want to take with the South's new president.

Other ministries that would be closed, merged or downgraded under the Lee plan are maritime affairs, information, science and gender equality. The Finance Ministry will absorb the budget ministry.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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