South Korea's unification minister nominee says North Korea can't have nukes, prosperity

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s nominee for unification minister said on Tuesday that North Korea cannot expect to achieve a prosperous economy and keep its weapons programs, as nuclear talks have stalled since the collapse of a U.S.-North Korea summit last month.

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The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi fell apart over conflicting demands by the North for sanctions relief and from the United States for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Since then, relations between the two Koreas have been left in limbo.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently tapped pro-engagement scholar Kim Yeon-chul as new unification minister in charge of inter-Korean affairs.

“I will seek a creative solution so that North Korea and the U.S. can meet again soon and find common ground,” Kim told a confirmation hearing, without elaborating.

Kim, 55, advised Moon’s office on Korean summits before moving to head the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification. If he passes the hearing, he is expected to expedite Moon’s initiative for a “peace-driven economy.”

Kim said North Korea has taken some action toward denuclearization but it was “insufficient”, and the increased priority that North Korea is giving to its economic development should be used as leverage to encourage more progress on dismantling its weapons programs.

“Basically I think they can’t have both nuclear weapons and the economy at the same time,” Kim said.

A professor who headed a think tank affiliated with the Unification Ministry under Moon, Kim is a staunch advocate for a restart of inter-Korean economic cooperation, but progress has been hampered by international sanctions over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.

Kim apologized past remarks he made on social media as a scholar that had prompted some opposition lawmakers to nickname him “North Korean spokesman”.

In 2011, Kim had described a torpedo attack by North Korea that sank a South Korean navy ship in 2010 as an “accidental incident.”

While stressing the North carried out the torpedo attack, he said the sanctions imposed by the South’s then government should be resolved in a “flexible” manner, noting that the sanctions hurt South Korean firms.

In 2010 Kim wrote an opinion piece in which he referred to the killing of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier in the North’s Mount Kumgang resort in 2008 as a “rite of passage”.

At the hearing, an opposition politician aired a recording of demands from the son of the deceased tourist for Kim to clarify his remarks.

The nominee said the North was responsible for the incident, and expressed condolences to the tourist’s family.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore