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[Newsmaker] Kim reemerges at center of security policy

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Published : 2014-06-02 21:11
Updated : 2014-06-02 21:27

After three and a half years at the helm of the Defense Ministry, the hawkish Kim Kwan-jin was expected to leave the government to pave the way for a more flexible, conciliatory policy toward North Korea.

Yet, he has reemerged as the centerpiece of the Park Geun-hye administration’s security policy as Park seeks to maintain a robust deterrence posture amid Pyongyang’s saber-rattling and menacing rhetoric against Seoul.

Park appointed him to head the presidential office of national security on Sunday, 10 days after Kim Jang-soo, the former chief of the office, offered to resign over his controversial remarks concerning the ferry disaster. The position does not require parliamentary consent.
New National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin (left) shakes hands with Kim Ki-choon, the chief of staff for President Park Geun-hye, prior to a meeting of senior presidential secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae on Monday. (Park Hyun-koo/Joint Press Corps)

Kim’s ascent to the presidential office received mixed reactions.

Conservatives welcomed it, arguing that a strong security leader, well-versed both in practice and theory, should lead the security office to deter Pyongyang, which has threatened to conduct a fourth nuclear test.

Since being commissioned a second lieutenant in 1972, Kim has served in various policy-making and field operations positions including the Third Army commander and the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Taking office as the defense minister in 2010, Kim maintained a hawkish stance toward the North. He has said frequently that if provoked, Seoul would launch counterstrikes at not only the origin of provocation, but also forces supporting it and its commanders.

The hard-line position has enraged the communist state, which said Kim was on its list of those to be “first weeded out” ― a reason why bodyguards accompanied him for some time last year.

Unlike conservatives’ positive reactions, progressives expressed concerns that the appointment of the hard-liner would make it even more difficult for Seoul to create a turnaround to thaw inter-Korean relations.

From the beginning of her term in 2013, President Park has pushed for the so-called peninsular trust-building process. Since early this year, Park has also highlighted the importance of reunification. But none of her policy initiatives has yielded any progress, prompting calls to change security personnel and her tough policy.

“We doubt that (Kim) is fit for the position, given that he should help the president with the aim to reduce peninsular tension and promote inter-Korean reconciliation and peace in Northeast Asia,” said Han Jeong-ae, spokesperson of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

A day after Kim’s appointment, the Rodong Sinmun, the daily of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, denounced Park’s decision to choose Kim for the top security office.

“At the forefront of confrontational moves by warmongers in South Korea is the felonious military gangster Kim Kwan-jin,” said the daily.

Kim’s ministerial career has not been without incident. He came under public criticism for his unfruitful push for defense reform; the “porous” air defense that was revealed after North Korean drones were found earlier this year; and the cyberwarfare command’s alleged interference in the 2012 presidential election.

Those incidents triggered calls for his resignation, but Kim retained his post as there was not a proper alternative to replace him, particularly at a time of increasing North Korean threats.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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