Seoul: South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak on Tuesday replaced a hardline minister in charge of relations with North Korea, a move which one analyst said could signal a push to improve tense ties.
Yu Woo-Ik, former ambassador to China, will become the new unification minister in place of Hyun In-Taek as part of a cabinet reshuffle involving four ministries.
Hyun, appointed in January 2009, was the key architect of Lee`s policy on North Korea, which links major economic aid to progress on denuclearisation. The policy enraged the communist state.
Cross-border relations have been icy since Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 South Korean lives.
Tensions rose further after the North`s shelling of a South Korean border island last November, which killed four people including two civilians.
Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul`s Dongguk University, said the reshuffle signals a possible shift in policy towards Pyongyang.
"There will be no sudden turnaround in Lee`s policy on North Korea, but the reshuffle reflects Lee`s will to improve cross-border relations," he said.
"The new unification minister is expected to seek dialogue with Pyongyang," Kim said, pointing to the North`s consistent demand for Hyun`s resignation.
There had been strong calls from within Lee`s ruling Grand National Party (GNP) to name a new unification minister to help improve relations.
Opposition parties had also demanded the resignation of Hyun, who will become a special presidential adviser for unification affairs.
High cross-border tensions are complicating efforts to restart six-nation talks on the North`s nuclear disarmament, although nuclear envoys from the two Koreas held a rare bilateral meeting in Bali in July.
That meeting was followed by talks in New York between a senior North Korean official and his US counterparts.
The North quit the six-party talks in April 2009 and staged its second atomic weapons test a month later.
It denies involvement in the sinking of the warship last year.
The South has demanded its neighbour accept blame for both deadly incidents last year before any substantial dialogue, although it later abandoned that condition ahead of the Bali meeting.
The new unification minister will be formally appointed after parliamentary confirmation hearings, at which opponents can question the appointment but not block it.
The reshuffle was seen as Lee`s latest attempt to revitalise his conservative ruling party ahead of parliamentary elections next April and a presidential vote in December 2012.
The shake-up saw three other ministerial appointments.
Choe Kwang-Sik, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, became new culture minister. Rim Che-Min, minister of the prime minister`s office, was named as health minister and Kim Kum-Lae, a GNP lawmaker, became gender equality minister.