SEOUL • South Korean President Moon Jae-in has replaced his unification minister, who played a major role in detente with North Korea over the past year, and named a long-time confidant to lead a drive for "a new Korean peninsula".
Mr Kim Yeon-chul, a pro-engagement scholar who heads the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, will replace Mr Cho Myoung-gyon pending a confirmation hearing.
The Ministry of Unification handles relations with North Korea.
"He's the right man who can actively embody the President's vision for a new Korean peninsula, a new peace and cooperation community, by carrying out the Unification Ministry's main policy tasks without a hitch and implementing inter-Korean agreements in a speedy manner," Mr Moon's spokesman said yesterday.
The change was part of Mr Moon's largest Cabinet reshuffle since taking office in 2017, with new ministers for the interior, land and transport, culture and sport, oceans and fisheries, science and technology, and small and medium enterprises.
The shake-up turns a page for an administration grappling with the challenges of a sluggish economy and fading popularity.
The removal of Mr Cho comes a week after a second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Vietnam, failed to narrow their differences on dismantling the North's nuclear programme and US willingness to ease sanctions.
The failed summit was a blow for Mr Moon, who had hoped American sanctions relief would boost South-North projects, including a factory park, tourism zone and railway network.
Ahead of the summit in Vietnam's capital of Hanoi, a rift opened within Mr Moon's administration over how to advance Korean ties without undercutting global sanctions and the country's alliance with the United States.
Some top aides, including national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, had pushed for economic projects with North Korea to go ahead. But Mr Cho and other aides favoured sticking to Mr Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign to force the North's denuclearisation.
Following the breakdown of the summit, Mr Moon reorganised his national security council, tasking Mr Choi Jong-kun, one of his foreign policy architects who steered an inter-Korean military accord last year, with the nuclear issues.
Mr Moon's spokesman told reporters that the recent changes, including Mr Cho's dismissal, did not mean a policy change, but Mr Kim Yeon-chul would expedite the president initiative for "peace-driven economy".
A staunch backer of Korean reconciliation, Mr Kim was a North Korea studies professor and adviser to a previous administration in which Mr Moon also served.
More recently, he advised Mr Moon's office on Korean summits before moving to head a think-tank affiliated with the Unification Ministry.