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Call to scrap Unification Ministry stirs debate

Ministry of Unification (Yonhap)
Ministry of Unification (Yonhap)

Debate over the Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean affairs, further heightened Sunday after remarks from the main opposition party leader drew backlash from the minister and ruling party lawmakers. People Power Party chief Lee Jun-seok had floated the idea of scrapping the ministry altogether, a notion his critics called “regrettable” and “unreasonable.”

Lee suggested doing away with the ministry during an interview with a local radio station Friday. While putting forward the opposition party’s “small government” agenda, he advocated the abolition of both the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Unification Ministry, saying “17, 18 ministries” were a “bit much” in comparison with other countries. South Korea currently has 18 ministries.

“Separating the duties of the Foreign Ministry and the Unification Ministry could be inefficient,” Lee said, clarifying that he was not opposing reunification with North Korea.

He then added that unification and security exist in the larger framework of diplomacy, handled by the Foreign Ministry, noting that the presidential office and the spy agency have directly overseen inter-Korean issues.

In response, Unification Minister Lee In-young said it would be “very regrettable” if Lee Jun-seok’s remarks represented the opposition party’s opinion.

The debate continued when Lee Jun-seok wrote on Facebook the next day that the existence of the Unification Ministry had not brought the two Koreas closer to reunification, just as the Ministry of Gender Equality had not resolved gender conflicts.

“The gender conflict has worsened with the Gender Ministry, and I don’t know what the Unification Ministry actively did during this administration, but the inter-Korean liaison office, which the ministry is in charge of, exploded,” he said. Lee then attacked the ministry for “wasting taxpayers’ money” and took aim at Minister Lee for not doing his job right.

Lee In-young responded via his social media account, saying he would work harder to improve inter-Korean relations while calling on Lee Jun-seok to stop boasting about his lack of “historical consciousness and social perception.”

The argument then shifted to a YouTube clip of Minister Lee giving out bouquets to female officials at the ministry on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day. Lee Jun-seok slammed the minister for stressing gender sensitivity while disregarding the human rights of North Korean women.

On Sunday, ruling party lawmakers and officials condemned the idea of abolishing the ministry as “irresponsible” and “absurd,” urging Lee Jun-seok to take back his remarks.

“The opposition party has been talking about scrapping the Ministry of Gender Equality as well as the Unification Ministry, which is absurd and irresponsible,” said Lee Nak-yon, former chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and former prime minister. “Just mentioning the idea of dissolving the Unification Ministry will raise questions about our policy on the peninsula both domestically and internationally, as well as cause disturbance in inter-Korean ties and foreign relations.

“The Unification Ministry should expand its duties and strengthen its authority,” he said.

Some in Lee Jun-seok’s own party also raised concerns regarding the leader’s remarks.

“The Unification Ministry under this administration has done some pathetic work, but it shouldn’t be abolished. We can take it over and do it right,” said Kwon Yong-se, a senior lawmaker with the People Power Party. “The Unification Ministry needs to be maintained.”

Kwon then stressed that the role of the ministry should not be to achieve reunification immediately, but to take charge of exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas while working to overcome the situation on the divided peninsula.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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