South Korea's top minister handling relations with North Korea yesterday announced his resignation, as Seoul's conciliatory policy towards its nuclear-armed neighbor came in for increasing criticism.
Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok is the second top minister in three days to quit, after defense minister Yoon Kwang-ung. The resignations come just over two weeks after North Korea shocked the world with its first nuclear test.
"I told the president [Roh Moo-hyun] that I would step down and the president said he would accept it," Lee told reporters.
He insisted the government will not drop its "sunshine" policy of engagement with its communist neighbor, which he said had eased tensions.
"My resignation must not be interpreted as any change in the government's policy [towards North Korea]," Lee said. "The president's philosophy is firm and clear. He will maintain the principle and basis of his policy."
Two inter-Korean projects funded by the South -- the Kaesong industrial estate and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort -- have come under fire domestically as a potential source of cash for the North's missile and nuclear programs. They have earned the North almost US$1 billion since 1998.
"The engagement policy has substantially reduced tensions between South and North Korea. And the two projects have played a key role," Lee said. "We should go ahead with the two projects for a while."
The government says it will not scrap Kaesong or Kumgang but may modify them.
US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Washington's main negotiator with Pyongyang, has questioned Kumgang as seemingly "designed to give money to the North Korean authorities."
But he has said Kaesong was "trying to deal with a longer-term issue of economic reform" in the hardline state.
Newspapers and conservative groups in Seoul have strongly criticized the "sunshine" policy, with some terming it appeasement.
Some 73 percent of South Koreans say the policy should be revised, while about 15 percent want economic ties snapped altogether and 10 percent want no change, according to a telephone survey of 800 respondents last week.