South Korea's president replaced the conservative Cabinet minister who has handled North Korean relations in an appointment Tuesday seen as signaling his willingness to improve ties with Pyongyang after more than a year of troubling tension.
As the new unification minister, Yu Woo-ik is expected to play an important role in establishing "future-oriented" inter-Korean ties, a statement from President Lee Myung-bak's office said.
The former chief presidential secretary is one of Lee's close associates and also served as South Korea's ambassador in China.
Yu will replace Hyun In-taek, who led a hard-line policy on Pyongyang, which has subsequently accused him of undermining ties between the countries.
"The unification minister's replacement is like sending a message to North Korea that (South Korea) will be flexible and try to improve ties," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.
Yu will have a confirmation hearing but his nomination doesn't need parliamentary approval.
Hyun will become a presidential adviser on unification policy. Lee also replaced four other Cabinet-level officials, including the culture minister Tuesday, the statement said.
Ties between the Koreas remain strained after two deadly attacks the South blamed on Pyongyang last year. However, there have been recent glimmers of diplomatic hope on the Korean peninsula, and senior officials from the United States and both Koreas met last month to discuss a possible resumption of long-dormant negotiations on ending the North's nuclear weapons program in return for aid.
During a visit to Russia last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly offered to impose a nuclear test and production moratorium if the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks resume. South Korea and the United States have said North Korea must keep its prior commitments before the nuclear talks can resume.