SEOUL, Jan 15: South Korea's foreign minister resigned on Thursday in a dispute pitting pro-US ministry officials against left-leaning presidential aides over Seoul's policy toward the United States and North Korea.

President Roh Moo-hyun's personnel secretary said Roh accepted the resignation of Yoon Young-kwan, a pro-US moderate who leaves at a pivotal moment in multinational efforts to resolve a crisis over North Korea's suspected nuclear arms programmes.

Jeong Chan-yong said in a statement Mr Yoon had resigned to take responsibility for failing to guide foreign policy in line with directives from Mr Roh's year-old administration. Foreign policy analysts said there was little doubt Roh had dumped Yoon.

"Some Foreign Ministry staff were unable to shed the past foreign policy and failed to adequately understand the basic spirit of the new independent foreign policy advocated by the People's Participatory Government," Jeong told reporters.

The "People's Participatory Government" is the slogan Roh's team uses for its populist administration, which calls for more independence from Washington and closer ties to North Korea.

Jeong said the presidential Blue House was reviewing three or four potential successors to Yoon, who helped put Roh's ties with the United States on a smooth footing after a rocky start.

Yonhap news agency reported Mr Yoon's replacement could be named as early as Friday. The agency said possible candidates included Han Sung-joo, South Korea's ambassador in Washington, and two senior Roh aides, national security adviser Ra Jong-yil and foreign policy adviser Ban Ki-moon.

The president has faced criticism over a political funding scandal, labour strife and a sluggish economy but had been given relatively high marks for stabilizing ties with Washington.

"The resignation could very well signal a change in Korea's foreign policy direction, especially in relations with the US," said Lee Jung-hoon, professor of international studies at Yonsei University, referring to Yoon.

"If (Yoon's successor) is a person who shares more ideals with the National Security Council, the alliance with the US will become more difficult," he said. The NSC reports to Roh. Conservatives have dubbed some of its aides "Red Guards."

Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun told Reuters in an interview he did not anticipate big policy changes. "I don't think there will be particular problems in the alliance with the US just because the leadership at the Foreign Ministry is changed," he said.

A US State Department official also played down the impact on bilateral ties, calling the resignation part of the "rough-and-tumble world" of South Korean politics that would not effect negotiations over the North's nuclear programmes.

"Our bilateral partnership is bigger than personal relationships," the official, who asked not to be identified, said. "Our relationship is with South Korea, and we will continue to work together with South Korea (on such issues)."

ALLIANCE VERSUS INDEPENDENCE: The dispute - billed by local media as a battle between the "Alliance Faction" and the "Independence Faction" - erupted late last year with media reports that senior diplomats had disparaged members of Roh's National Security Council as amateurish.

Mr Roh's mostly young and nationalistic NSC advisers in turn criticized the diplomats as being too pro-American. Many opposed Seoul's decision to send troops to Iraq and advocated a softer line on communist North Korea.

"The (US) alliance is important because peace with North Korea is not complete," Yoon said at a farewell meeting with grim-faced ministry staff.

"We have the six-party talks and the effort to rescue North Korea's economy, and we also need to help change North Korea's diplomatic isolation," he added.

"There should be balance in the way we look at international politics. We should not lean to the left or to the right." One of the South Korean diplomats at the center of the row is in Washington discussing ways to restart talks on North Korea's nuclear crisis. The talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

The trigger for the dispute that cost Yoon his job was contentious negotiations with Washington on relocating US military bases, including a huge one in the heart of Seoul.

Pentagon officials complained this week about South Korean leaks they said misrepresented US positions. Further negotiations are scheduled for this week in Hawaii.

Roh campaigned for the presidency in 2002 on a pledge not to "kowtow" to Washington, Seoul's traditional ally. Like Roh, many of his appointees had no ties to the United States and demanded "equality" in the 50-year-old alliance.

Roh's narrow election victory was helped by a surge of anti-American sentiment that drew tens of thousands of young South Koreans to US flag-burning protests triggered by the deaths of two girls run over by a US Army vehicle. -Reuters

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