South Korean President Moon Jae-in, having reshuffled his top security team with figures known to be for engagement with North Korea, is widely expected to push to make a breakthrough in stalled relations with North Korea.
On Friday, Moon tapped Suh Hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service, as his national security adviser, and nominated Park Jie-won, a former lawmaker and special envoy to North Korea, to succeed Suh as the spy chief. Lee In-young, a four-term lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, was named unification minister, filling the vacancy after Kim Yeon-chul last month resigned over frayed inter-Korean relations.
Analysts here say the latest shakeup is a clear indication of Moon’s strong determination to break the deadlock and move forward after the North’s demolition of a joint liaison office that has cast uncertainty on inter-Korean relations.
“Moon has placed security, North Korean experts at the forefront of Korean’s peninsular affairs, indicating he is determined to find a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations,” Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, told The Korea Herald.
”Park Jie-won and Lee In-young are veteran politicians, who could voice out more and be more driven than bureaucrats, while Suh Hoon is a well-known North Korean expert,“ the expert continued. “Moon is intent on improving the North Korean situation and driving the peace process during his remaining term.”
Park Jie-won, who failed to secure a fifth term as a lawmaker in April’s legislative election, is known for his role in brokering the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000 as chief presidential secretary to late President Kim Dae-jung. Park accompanied Kim on his trip to North Korea to meet then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, father of current leader Kim Jong-un. He is known to have maintained a network of contacts with the North since then. He has also met two generations of the ruling Kim family, including Jong-il, Jong-un and his younger sister Yo-jong.
Moon’s pick of Park came as surprise, as the 78-year-old veteran politician is not a confidant nor a member of Moon’s ruling party. Park had locked horns with Moon for years and had left the Democratic Party in 2016 amid factional strife.
He was also jailed in 2006 for his role in secretly sending $450 million to the North ahead of the summit in 2000, and embezzling $13 million as commission in return.
Despite such controversy, Park’s appointment as the spy chief reflects Moon’s determination to restart dialogue and ease tensions with the North.
“Nominee Park has contributed to the 2000 inter-Korean summit agreement, has high expertise in North Korean issues and he has provided advice on peninsular affairs to the incumbent government,” said Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Kang Min-seok in announcing the decision.
Outgoing spy agency chief Suh is replacing Chung Eui-yong as Moon’s top security adviser at Cheong Wa Dae. Chung’s departure was widely expected as there have been growing calls to replace him amid worsening inter-Korean relations. The career diplomat has served in the top security post for three years since Moon came to power. Chung, along with Moon’s another close aide Im Jong-seok, former presidential chief of staff, will serve as special advisers for diplomatic and security affairs.
Moon’s choice of Suh as a new adviser was largely foreseen, as he is the country’s top expert on North Korea. The longtime intelligence official had taken part in arranging previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, and also played an important role in Moon’s three summits with Kim Jong-un in April, May and September 2018. He is also known as the South Korean who met with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il the most, and has a wide network of officials in the North.
“I have a heavy responsibility for assuming the job at a grave time both internally and externally,” said Suh after the announcement. “We will respond prudently to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula but will also prepare to move boldly sometimes. It’s very important to continuously secure the international community’s support for our external and North Korea policy.”
Rep. Lee In-young, a former floor leader of the Democratic Party and four-time lawmaker, will lead the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
Lee, who is known for leading the pro-democracy student movement in the 1980s, has led the ruling party’s committee on developing inter-Korean ties and has shown deep interest in North Korean issues.
“I accepted (Moon’s) nomination with a sense of urgency that we should again open the door of peace before it’s closed,” he said. “We need to resume dialogue (between the two Koreas) to discuss what we can do immediately, such as humanitarian cooperation, and work to implement our existing accords.”
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, stressed that the latest reshuffle reflects Moon’s determination to seek a virtuous cycle of improved inter-Korean relations and better Pyongyang-Washington negotiations.
“Centering on Suh, the new security team will seek to balance inter-Korean relations, as well as Pyongyang-Washington ties,” said Yang. “Suh understands President Moon’s philosophy, and importance of both the US-South Korea alliance and development of inter-Korean relations. The new team will prepare to stabilize the Korean Peninsula and prevent further deterioration, and when relations thaw, seek active inter-Korean cooperation.”
But the security team’s heavy focus on North Korea also raises concern.
“While the North Korean issue is critical, the ongoing US-China spat, further strained with the COVID-19 pandemic, is also a serious problem,” said professor Park. “Rising US-China tension will limit Seoul’s diplomatic room to maneuver. It’s concerning that the new team lacks a person to navigate such diplomatic issues.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org