South Korea's unification minister steps down over rising tensions with North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday accepted the resignation of the minister responsible for relations with North Korea, as tensions with Pyongyang rise over the activities of defectors in the South and stalled diplomacy.

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with North Korea, offered on Wednesday to quit, taking responsibility for the worsening ties.

“There are many wounds in inter-Korean relations, and it’s more difficult to treat them if you add another wound,” Kim said in his farewell speech to ministry employees, adding that the current tensions should be defused.

Moon’s approval rating, which had improved over his government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, has fallen to 55%, the lowest level in about three months, due to worries over North Korea, a Gallup Korea poll showed on Friday.

North Korea has snubbed Seoul’s calls for engagement as efforts to restart inter-Korean economic projects stalled due to international sanctions designed to rein in the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Pyongyang has also taken issue over defectors in the South sending propaganda leaflets into North Korea.

Citing Seoul’s failure to stop the defectors, North Korea this week blew up the joint liaison office on its side of the border, declared an end to dialogue with South Korea and threatened military action.

A North Korean defector-led group said on its website on Friday it had scrapped a plan to send hundreds of plastic bottles stuffed with rice, medicine and face masks to North Korea by throwing them into the sea near the border on Sunday.

It said the decision was taken “in consideration of the South Korean public’s uneasiness” after threats from Pyongyang and an appeal from the Seoul government to desist.

A spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry said it would seek to impose penalties for violations of a law governing inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation.

After a flurry of barbed statements earlier this week, North Korean officials did not issue direct criticism of South Korea for a second day in a row on Friday.

But state media kept up a steady stream of reports on North Koreans “exploding with anger” at the South.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Gareth Jones