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9 officials quit Cabinet in S. Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — President Kim Dae-jung, who enjoyed international acclaim last year when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, replaced nearly half his Cabinet on Monday in a dramatic sign of how hard he is struggling to shore up support at home.

One of the most prominent resignations was that of Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn, who was held responsible for a series of policy fumbles related to Kim's delicate rapprochement process with North Korea.

Han Seung-soo, a former ambassador to the United States, replaced Lee in an appointment that possibly reflects Seoul's preoccupation with U.S. policy toward the communist North. South Korean officials fear that rising tension between Washington and Pyongyang is slowing reconciliation between the two Koreas.

Park Joon-young, a presidential spokesman, said nine out of 22 ministers were replaced. Critics accused Kim of trying to consolidate his political base because five of the nine appointees were political allies.

The main opposition Grand National Party dismissed the appointments — the third major shake-up since Kim began his five-year term in early 1998 — as a "typical example of cronyism."

Kim kept Prime Minister Lee Han-dong, whose job is largely ceremonial, and Jin Nyum, the finance and economy minister.

But he replaced most other economic ministers, who had been entrusted with implementing reforms in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis.

Critics have accused the government of failing to pursue reforms with enough resolve. Some South Koreans, worried about an economic slowdown and weary of political infighting, were skeptical about the Cabinet shake-up.

Kim aimed for a broader mandate with the shake-up: three new Cabinet members are from his ruling party's coalition partner, the United Liberal Democrats. The new foreign minister, Han, was tapped from the splinter opposition Democratic People's Party.

"I feel a heavy burden on my shoulders," said Han, declaring that the national interest was more important than party politics.

Lim Dong-won, 65, head of the government's National Intelligence Service, replaced Park Jae-kyu as unification minister, whose job is to handle Seoul's so-called "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea.

Former Foreign Minister Lee had come under fire in connection with a joint statement issued during Russian President Vladimir Putin's February visit to Seoul. The statement praised the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Some observers interpreted the statement as a sign of Seoul's opposition to a U.S.-proposed national missile defense system, which Russia says would violate the ABM treaty.

South Korea, a close ally of the United States and host to 37,000 U.S. soldiers, later denied taking a stance on U.S. missile defense, saying Washington had never sought its backing on the project.