South Korea's new point man on North Korea calls for efforts to ease war tension

South Korea 's new point man on North Korea called Friday for the rival Koreas to boost cooperation and ease tensions, which he said could help resolve the international standoff over the North's nuclear weapons program. "Let us make efforts to ensure inter-Korean ties can have a positive impact on the progress of North Korea 's nuclear issue," Lee Jong-seok said at a ceremony where he assumed the post of unification minister, responsible for South Korea 's relations with the North.

Lee replaced Chung Dong-young, who resigned last year to run for his party's leadership. Lee took office after being criticized in parliamentary hearings this week by conservatives who accused him of being too sympathetic to North Korea . However, the National Assembly has no power to block the appointment by President Roh Moo-hyun.

Lee urged the two Koreas to "remove the barbed wire of confrontation and tension in all areas" along the cease-fire line that splits the Korean Peninsula . He also called for the North and South to boost economic cooperation.

Last week, the rival Koreas agreed for the first time since June 2004 to hold military talks between generals, sometime before early next month, to discuss ways to avoid accidental naval clashes.

Lee also said the North and South should arrange more reunions of relatives separated by the inter-Korean border.

"Time is not on our side over the issue of separated families," Lee said, referring to the advanced age of many relatives.

Lee, a former top National Security Council official, is considered an architect of Roh's policies toward the North, which have followed the path of former President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the communist nation.

The two Koreas remain technically in a state of conflict since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. But their ties have warmed significantly since a 2000 summit between Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

However, the North's refusal to dismantle its nuclear programs has impeded greater progress in relations with the South, reports the AP.


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