South's unification minister resigns as Korean tensions rise

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U.S. Army equipments sit in a field in Yeoncheon, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Friday, June 19, 2020. South Korea said Thursday it hasn't detected any suspicious activities by North Korea, a day after it threatened with provocative acts at the border in violation of a 2018 agreement to reduce tensions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday accepted the resignation of his point man on North Korea, who had asked to quit after the North destroyed a liaison office while ramping up pressure against Seoul amid stalled nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration.

Kim Yeon-chul was appointed unification minister in April last year as talks between the U.S. and Pyongyang began falling apart, and leaves the job without having a single meeting with the North Koreans. He said he wanted to resign to take responsibility for tensions between the rivals.

The North in recent months has virtually cut off all cooperation with the South while expressing frustration over Seoul’s unwillingness to break away from ally Washington and restart inter-Korean economic projects held back by U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

Kim offered to resign after North Korea in a made-for-TV demonstration Tuesday used explosives to destroy the building in its border town of Kaesong. The North has also declared it will cut off all government and military communication channels and abandon a key military agreement reached in 2018 to reduce conventional threats, which experts say elevates risks of skirmishes in land and sea border areas.

“The (North-South) relations have entered a crisis phase,” Kim said during a farewell speech at the ministry. “I hope that my departure can provide an opportunity to halt (the erosion in bilateral relations).”

It isn’t immediately clear who Moon is considering as Kim’s replacement. There are calls for Moon to overhaul his foreign policy and national security personnel amid deteriorating relations with the North and Seoul’s fading role as a mediator in the talks between Washington and Pyongyang, The negotiations have faltered over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps.

Moon’s government was credited for coordinating a diplomatic push to defuse the nuclear standoff with North Korea, with his envoys shuttling between Pyongyang and Washington to help set up the first meeting between the North’s leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in in Singapore in June 2018.

But there’s criticism that South Korean officials had been too optimistic about the signs they were seeing from Pyongyang. They ran into credibility problems once it became clear Kim had no intent to voluntarily deal away the nukes he likely sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.