As President Park Geun-hye continues her pitch for unification as a potential “bonanza,” one government organ that would conventionally be at the vanguard of the drive appears to be increasingly inconspicuous: the Unification Ministry.
With foreign affairs and security being the conservative president’s fortes, Cheong Wa Dae has gradually been taking over the ministry’s traditional role ― along with its influence.
While regular, administrative tasks associated with inter-Korean affairs remain business as usual, the ministry is seen to have been excluded from the decision-making core dominated by hard-line, former military commanders in the presidential office.
“I think the Unification Ministry is arguably at one of its lowest ebbs since being founded,” a government source said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. “Compare now and 10 years ago. Back then it wielded formidable power at the core of the decision-making process regarding North Korea affairs.”
|Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae. (Yonhap)|
The ministry set out as the Board of National Unification in 1969 and was scaled up to a central state organ in 1998. It had its heyday under liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08), who appointed some of their closest, most powerful confidants to head the ministry.
The fate of the ministry has often been subject to fierce debate at the start of a new administration. Former President Lee Myung-bak once floated the idea of the Foreign Ministry absorbing the Unification Ministry as one of its bureaus.
A major blow came when the two Koreas held their first high-level dialogue in about seven years in February, for which Pyongyang demanded a presidential official represent Seoul. The talks were thus led by Kim Kyou-hyun, vice chief of the National Security Office, and Won Dong-yon, deputy head of the United Front Department in the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Earlier that month, controversy erupted after Cheong Wa Dae abruptly withdrew its appointment of Chun Hae-sung, chief of unification policy at the ministry, as security strategy secretary at the NSC. That means there are no unification ministry officials in key positions within the presidential office.
The office said the decision reflected Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae’s request for the return of his “essential, core” aide but this was insufficient to quell speculation.
The ministry’s reduced influence has been felt even across the border. During reunions of separated families at Mount Geumgangsan in February, a senior North Korean official expressed regret over Chun’s situation and the ministry’s status.
“I don’t understand why they did this to him just after making him a secretary,” he told reporters. “Shouldn’t there be Unification Ministry officials at the NSC?”
Concerns are growing in and around the ministry over its future standing as Cheong Wa Dae gears up to launch a unification preparation committee as Park outlined in a speech marking the first anniversary of her administration in February. The president will chair the panel, which would consist of some 50 senior government officials, scholars and members of related nongovernmental organizations.
Observers say the roles of the committee and the ministry would inevitably overlap, though ministry officials said they were different. If Ryoo becomes a vice chairman of the panel, as recent news reports have suggested, it would be a relief for many.
“We don’t see the Unification Ministry and the unification preparation committee as overlapping or conflicting in terms of their functions,” ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters earlier.
“The committee is to oversee public discussions over unification and lead the development of unification policy, while the ministry will pursue the key national task of establishing the foundation of a unification era as the central agency in charge of unification policy.”
As Park accelerates her campaign at home and abroad, the Foreign Ministry is gaining in clout, fostering partnerships and various projects with other countries.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se boasts a bigger say as a main architect of the conservative president’s key diplomatic and security initiatives, whereas Ryoo is seen as having often been swayed by hard-line presidential officials at numerous crucial moments for cross-border ties.
“With Yun essentially at the forefront of foreign policy, may inevitably have the Foreign Ministry to take over a chunk of unification-related work,” another government source said, requesting anonymity.
“Given the recent furor over the Unification Ministry’s role, Cheong Wa Dae would try to have ministry people aboard the preparation committee and make clear what should be done by which body.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)