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Nominee says no strings attached in humanitarian assistance to North Korea

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Unification Minister nominee Kwon Young-se speaks during a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly, Seoul, Thursday. Joint Press Corp
Unification Minister nominee Kwon Young-se speaks during a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly, Seoul, Thursday. Joint Press Corp

Unification minister nominee says South Korea ready to help North in fight against COVID-19

By Lee Hae-rin

Unification Minister nominee Kwon Young-se said on Thursday that if he takes the helm in the ministry, he will be willing to help North Korea in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think using the plight facing North Korea as an opportunity to initiate dialogue is ethically wrong. What I can say now is that South Korea is willing to help the North as it's currently in trouble," he said during a confirmation hearing held in the National Assembly, when asked how he thinks South Korea can help its northern neighbor, which allegedly reported its first official COVID-19 infections on Thursday.

Kwon vowed to prepare for the resumption of humanitarian assistance for the North as the Omicron outbreak will worsen its already poor humanitarian situation.

"Our position is that inter-Korean cooperation in the area of health and quarantine can be launched anytime, if North Korea is willing to accept it. If there's anything we can do in inter-Korean relations or international cooperation to resume cooperation on humanitarian assistance for the North, we are ready to review it," the nominee said.

He said that the Yoon government would pursue a "no-strings-attached policy" on humanitarian assistance to the North, stressing that medical and health assistance for North Korea's people would be provided anytime, if necessary.

Regarding the denuclearization of North Korea, the nominee said he would use both carrots and sticks.

"There are two very different options that we can use to encourage North Korea to achieve denuclearization: one is persuasion through economic assistance and the other is sanctions," he said during a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly on Thursday. "Considering that the North has made its nuclear and missile technologies sophisticated in a relatively short period of time, and employed provocations to get what it wants, I think now is the time for sanctions, rather than appeasement."

Nevertheless, the nominee said that he didn't believe sanctions are powerful enough to convince the North to go for denuclearization, noting that he would propose dialogue and discuss ways to offer a security guarantee and economic assistance to convince the North to give up its nuclear program.

He made the remarks when Rep. Park Hong-keun of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) asked him about how he would engage with the North to achieve denuclearization.

Kwon defended President Yoon Suk-yeol's previous remarks about "a preemptive strike against the North," which he said during the presidential election campaign.

"When you compare the rhetoric of previous presidents before and after they were elected, you can see that there are clear differences between them," Kwon said.

"Regarding Yoon's remarks about a preemptive strike, it's an option that has so many conditions, all of which have to be met before one can choose it as a last resort. So the president didn't mean that he would go for it with his previous remarks."

When asked if President Yoon's vision for North Korea is identical to that of former President Lee Myung-bak, Kwon answered no, and that he didn't believe that Lee's North Korea policy had failed.

Noting that the Yoon government's policy toward the North is different from Lee's, he said Lee's tenure ended without having a proper opportunity to implement his North Korea vision because of the killing of a South Korean tourist on Mount Geumgang, which was followed by the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan in the West Sea.

"Having said that, it's not fair to say that President Lee's North Korea policy failed," Kwon said.

Although the Yoon administration's posture on North Korea is very different from that of the previous Moon Jae-in administration, Kwon said the new government won't oppose the previous government's policies just for the sake of opposing them, noting that policy inconsistency won't help the nation at all.

"Overturning everything that the Moon government did ― that's not going to be very good for our North Korea policy, and it could cause confusion for North Korea as well," he said.

Kwon brought up the example of Germany and explained that the continuity in West Germany's policies toward the East ― despite the fierce criticism from both the governing and opposition parties and the system change ― was the secret to the country's reunification.

However, the unification nominee went on to say that the Yoon government will not continue the parts of the Moon government's policies that were wrong.

During the hearing, Kwon was grilled over allegations of tax evasion and a conflict of interest regarding his family members' overseas business, which he has also invested in. But he denied all the allegations.

A prosecutor-turned-lawmaker, Kwon was nominated by President Yoon as the unification minister for his previous experience as South Korea's ambassador to China during the Park Geun-hye administration.

Lee Hae-rin

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