South Korea's newly-appointed spy chief Park Jie-won, center, looks on as Kim Yo Jong, right, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shakes hands with South Korea's director of the National Security Office, Chung Eui-yong, left, on June 12, 2019. File Photo: KCNA / AFP

South Korea appointed a former lawmaker who was jailed for sending $450 million to the North as its new spy chief on Friday, as President Moon Jae-in seeks to improve ties with Pyongyang.

Moon, who has been on the receiving end of vitriolic criticism from the nuclear-armed North, reshuffled his security team and top officials at the unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations.

Park Jie-won is a former four-term lawmaker and confidante of the late Nobel Prize-winning president Kim Dae-jung, was named to lead the National Intelligence Service. He played a crucial role in organizing the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

Park is known to have a network of contacts in the North as a result of his role in Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” of engaging with Pyongyang.

But it later emerged that Park played a key role in secretly funnelling $450 million from South Korea’s Hyundai group to the North ahead of the meeting between the former president and Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un.

The revelation tarnished Kim Dae-jung’s legacy and Park was sentenced to three years in prison.

He later returned to parliament and served three more terms before losing his seat in April’s legislative election.

Political heavyweight Lee In-young, who earned his spurs as a student democracy activist in the 1980s and rose to become the parliamentary floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party, was named unification minister.

Analysts say Lee’s appointment will give the ministry more sway in policy towards the North.

Moon has promoted engagement with the North and was instrumental in arranging the first US-North Korea summit in Singapore two years ago. 

The reshuffle comes after his call for another meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un before the US presidential election in November – even though the process is currently deadlocked.

“South Korea will be making its utmost efforts to arrange a meeting between the North and US before the US election,” Moon said Tuesday.

Nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalled since the Hanoi summit collapsed in early 2019 over what the North would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief. 

The South’s outgoing spy agency chief Suh Hoon was named national security adviser, replacing Chung Eui-yong – who first told Trump in March 2018 that Kim wanted to meet and was willing to denuclearize.