South Korea handed a high-level government job to a North Korean defector Wednesday as inter-Korean projects languish and Seoul tries to focus on the potential costs of a unified Korean peninsula.
The appointment of Cho Myung-chul as the new chief of the government-run Education Center for Unification is part of Seoul's efforts to put more resources into preparing South Koreans for the possibility of the two Koreas becoming a single country. The government is also trying to help North Korean defectors adapt to life in South Korea.
Last year, South Korea proposed a three-stage unification process and a tax that could help pay for the massive costs associated with any Korean unification.
The naming of Cho as the education center chief is the highest-ever South Korean government job for a North Korean refugee, officials said. The post is right below a vice ministerial post. The center publishes books and other material about unification and sends researchers and teachers to educate South Korean students; it also holds academic forums and seminars.
Cho, who taught economics at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University and defected to seek political freedom in 1994, said Wednesday that he will focus on addressing South Koreans' divide in views on how to deal with North Korea.
There is a sharp ideological rift in South Korean society over North Korea. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's two liberal predecessors called for greater reconciliation toward North Korea and pursued joint projects.
But such efforts have languished since Lee came to office in early 2008, ending unconditional aid and linking cooperation to North Korea's progress in keeping nuclear disarmament commitments.
After North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors in March last year, Lee ended almost all trade with the North, except for the operation of a joint factory park in the North. Prospects for improved ties further dimmed when the North shelled a South Korean border island in November, killing four people.
The strains have persisted. Pyongyang threatened last week to attack because South Korean troops had been using photos of North Korea's ruling family as targets during firing drills.
Meanwhile, the number of defectors has steadily risen, causing social problems in South Korea. Many defectors say they face difficulties and discrimination at school and work and in adjusting to the capitalistic South.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said it is working to help defectors resettle in the South more smoothly, offering greater tax reduction and medical benefits.
"We're trying to educate our young people so they're more realistic about the reality of the security situation with North Korea," Vice Unification Minister Um Jong-sik told reporters late last month. "How we are managing these defectors will determine how we can handle reunification in the future."
Haksoon Paik, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, however, said Lee's government has done very little to assimilate defectors into South Korean society. "It is simply a gesture made at the technical level," he said of Cho's appointment.
The appointment, he said, will anger North Korea, rather than help pave the way for unification, and will do nothing to better inter Korean relations.
North Korea rejected Lee's unification proposal last year, calling it a tactic aimed at realizing a northward invasion with the United States.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee and Foster Klug contributed to this report.