- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2004

SEOUL — South Korean delegates who traveled to Pyongyang yesterday for the 14th round of inter-Korean Cabinet-level talks were surprised to find a new set of younger faces in North Korea’s five-member delegation.

The North’s high-level mission was headed by Kwon Ho-ung, 45, who replaced 61-year-old Kim Ryong-song, who had spearheaded negotiations with South Korea since the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

The other delegates were also new faces named early this year. They include Jon Jong-soo, 40, a son of former deputy foreign minister Jon In-chul, who died in 1992. The senior Jon was well known in Seoul as the chief negotiator for North Korea-Japan talks aimed at establishing diplomatic relations in 1990-1992.

All of the five delegates have been engaged in economic affairs, which raised hopes in Seoul that they would adopt a pragmatic view in negotiations.

Choe Yong-gon is vice minister of construction and building-materials industries, and Kim Chun Kun has served the secretary-general of the National Economic Cooperation Federation, which engages in inter-Korean economic exchanges. Sin Byung Chol is a Cabinet councilor.

Chief delegate Mr. Kwon, a senior Cabinet councilor, also served as a director of the North American and European bureau of the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which promotes economic exchanges with the South and other capitalist countries.

He played a key role in preparing for the 2000 inter-Korean summit but had not been seen in public since early 2002 and had been rumored to have been purged.

“The rise of new faces indicates that North Korea is conducting a generational change in its line of people handling inter-Korea relations,” said an official at the South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea.

“The new delegates are all among post-Korean War generations who favor pragmatism rather than ideological purity. They seem more open to exchanging with the South,” he said in an interview.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il began his second term in September with a major reshuffle in the Cabinet and the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), installing younger officials to many important posts.

The shift was highlighted by the naming of chemical industry minister Pak Pong-ju, 68, as prime minister. He replaced Hong Song-nam, 76.

Choe Ryong-su, in his 50s, has replaced Paek Hak-rim, 86, as public security minister. Two other first-generation strongmen — Ri Ul-sol and Kim Chol-man, both in their 80s — were removed from the all-powerful National Defense Commission.

Kim Yong-sun, who had long served as North Korea’s point man on South Korea, died at age 69 after a traffic accident last October. The North has yet to appoint his successor.

South Korean officials say most of the new luminaries have appeared from nowhere and are unknown to them. But they are hopeful that the generational shift could lead to an easing of the country’s rigid communist system.

Analysts say the new generation of North Korean leaders are mostly technocratic pragmatists devoted to solving problems with international management techniques.

Intelligence officials in the South believe the emergence of new leaders, most of them in their 40s, comes from a directive from Kim Jong-il, who is seeking limited pragmatic change.

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