The Korea Herald


[Lee Kyong-hee] Radical, mistimed ministry shakeup

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 17, 2023 - 05:31

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The Ministry of Unification is reportedly being overhauled and its focus will shift to human rights in North Korea and intelligence analysis. Organizations for inter-Korean dialogue, exchange and cooperation are set to be shut down or downsized and merged.

Given the prolonged stalemate in South-North relations and the grim prospects for a breakthrough anytime soon, an extensive revamping of operations can be justified. However, a broad-brush restructuring clearly departs from the ministry’s traditional mission. For decades, previous administrations have sought to mitigate the risks of armed conflict through dialogue and lay the groundwork to a reunified Korean Peninsula. President Yoon Suk Yeol apparently favors a different approach.

At a staff meeting in early July, President Yoon reportedly complained that the Unification Ministry had been “acting like the Ministry of North Korea Support.” Overriding loud misgivings, Yoon appointed Kim Yung-ho, an active right-wing YouTuber and an outspoken critic of the North’s human rights condition, as his new unification minister.

In an online column in 2019, Kim, a political science professor, wrote that “the path to unification would open once the Kim Jong-un’s regime is overthrown and North Korea is liberated.” It is too early to say how much leeway Yoon will give Kim. The Yoon administration officials have reiterated that they keep the door for dialogue open, and the presidential chief of staff has stated that Kim would pursue a “principle-based” and consistent North Korea policy.

This is not the first time the Unification Ministry is facing confusion about its raison d’etre. Conservative administrations tended to find the ministry’s role overstretched to appease the North. In 2008, the presidential transition committee of Lee Myung-bak planned to abolish the ministry and divide its duties among several government units. A strong pushback from the opposition party and general public led to withdrawal of the plan.

With a protracted territorial division and standoff between the two Koreas, public interest in South-North reconciliation and reunification has markedly waned. The young generations are indifferent to inter-Korean issues. In recent years, the North’s flurry of nuclear and missile provocations, as well as its huge economic gap with the South, has further dented the public’s enthusiasm for detente and unification.

However, these unfavorable developments do not justify crippling the Unification Ministry and sidelining its experience in negotiating and handling affairs with North Koreans. Furthermore, the current situation surrounding the ministry’s mission are more complicated than ever. Yoon’s decisions about the ministry and appointment of Kim come at a particularly delicate time when accumulated knowledge and skills are crucial.

Relations between Seoul and Pyongyang have been frozen for the longest period in recent memory. Communication between the two sides halted in August 2019, when North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Fatherland bashed President Moon Jae-in in a statement carried by the Rodong Sinmun, pouring out invectives. The North took issue with the ROK-US joint military exercise, but practically vented its displeasure about Moon’s failed role in brokering a deal in the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in June of that year.

Inter-Korean relations have not only stalled since, but military tensions have soared to an unprecedented level, with both sides ramping up the show of force. The geopolitical situation surrounding the peninsula is more dangerous than ever because it now involves the use of nuclear arms. The North Korean government passed a law authorizing a preemptive nuclear strike last year. With its hopes for nuclear armament dashed, the South Korean government has been asking for the reassurance of extended deterrence from the United States.

Facing challenges of a Zeitenwende, or an epochal tectonic shift, in the world order demanding it take a side between global powers, South Korea finds itself tasked with two herculean missions: removing the clouds of nuclear war gathering over the Korean Peninsula and saving the North Korean population from suffering in one of the most miserable places in the world. Both can be accomplished through the North’s denuclearization, which hinges on Washington’s will to formally end the Korean War.

In addressing the Korean Freedom Federation in June, President Yoon denounced the so-called “anti-state forces” for “chanting for a declaration to end the Korean War and imploring for lifting of the UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, a hollow call for fake peace depending on the good intentions of the enemy.”

Without question, attempts to reunify through dialogue have been unsuccessful. But appointing someone who advocates regime change in the North to head the Unification Ministry gives Pyongyang another reason to reject peace talks and intensify its military buildup.

Yoon should pause and heed the warning of Dan Leaf, a retired US Air Force lieutenant general and a former deputy commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, in his contribution to the New York Times on March 29. Noting that he spent much of his 33-year career as a nuclear warrior, an experience that informs his deep alarm over the growing risk of nuclear conflict with North Korea, Leaf wrote:

“I spent four years in South Korea, overseeing the vast destructive forces amassed for a war that was no longer being fought. The standoff is one of the greatest absurdities in global geopolitics. … A permanent peace agreement would undermine Mr. Kim (Jong-un)’s portrayal of the United States as an existential threat and his justification for building up his conventional and nuclear arsenal. It could also short-circuit the siege mentality underlying his repressive regime.

“Sanctions relief and economic development could follow, leading to long-hoped-for improvements in the quality of life and human rights for North Korea’s 25 million people.”

This may be a long circuitous -- but peaceful -- route toward the much-longed-for Korean unification. Yoon would do well to raise this vital point at the Korea-US-Japan summit at Camp David on Friday.

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.