Assembly sorely lacks foreign and security experts

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Assembly sorely lacks foreign and security experts

There is a severe lack of foreign affairs and security experts in the newly-elected National Assembly, despite the increasing importance of such matters in the region.

It is therefore questionable whether this new batch of lawmakers in the National Assembly will be able to handle pressing and sensitive diplomatic and regional security concerns, including North Korea’s continued nuclear provocations and the call for an integrated anti-ballistic missile
system.

The JoongAng Ilbo conducted an analysis of the 253 lawmakers representing electoral districts and 47 proportional representatives to determine the extent of their backgrounds regarding such affairs.

However, in the 300-seat National Assembly elected in April, there is not a single foreign affairs expert among lawmakers who will soon start their term.

Hence, there is concern even within the government that the newly-elected parliament does not have a foreign affairs specialist that can help guide the National Assembly on these issues.

One Foreign Ministry official said, “This is not a matter of having a lawmaker who came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a situation where the importance of diplomatic affairs will continue to grow, it is a huge problem when experience and knowledge of foreign affairs is nonexistent.”

This comes at a vital time when North Korea is declaring itself a nuclear weapons state and the future of inter-Korean relations remains murky.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president, has declared an “America First” policy that puts the South Korea-U.S. alliance on the backburner as he calls for the withdrawal of American troops and Washington’s nuclear umbrella from the region.

The deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery in South Korea remains a tense diplomatic issue, as Beijing is opposed to the plan because it is a powerful radar system that could be used as surveillance on China.

Furthermore, Beijing and Washington are at odds over the South China Sea issue and Seoul will also have to determine whether it will side with the United States and Japan or China.

The newspaper also checked whether there are lawmaker-elects with strong experience in North Korea or security issues.

Included as experts were assemblymen who have held a senior position in the Foreign Ministry, National Defense Ministry, Unification Ministry, National Intelligence Service (NIS) or any other relevant agencies or affiliated research institutes. Military experience was counted, for those holding general-level rank and above.

The result of the study showed just eight lawmakers-elect in this new National Assembly who could be counted as experts with regard to unification, foreign affairs or security. This is the lowest number of any recent parliament.

Four assemblymen are from the Saenuri Party, including Lee Chul-woo, who has a background with the NIS. One comes from the Minjoo Party, Kim Byung-ki, a former director of the human resources division at the NIS. Three are from the People’s Party, including Chung Dong-young, a former unification minister. One, a former defense expert named Kim Jong-dae, is from the Justice Party.

In the previous National Assembly, which began in 2012 and wrapped up its last regular session on Thursday, there were two lawmakers who could be considered foreign affairs experts: Saenuri Party Rep. Shim Yoon-joe, who served as ambassador to Austria and a director-general of the North American Affairs Bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Rep. Kim Jong-hoon, also a former diplomat who served as a chief negotiator during Korea-U.S. free trade agreement negotiations.

Overall, there were 11 representatives who could be considered experts in foreign affairs or security issues.

The National Assembly before that had 11 foreign affairs or security experts, while the one before that, elected in 2004, had just seven, and the one elected in 2000 had 10. But they each had two foreign affairs experts and lawmakers from various government branches and agencies, think tanks, academia and even a North Korean defector.

The incoming assembly, which kicking off on May 30, will launch new standing committees, and there appears to be a shortage of experienced lawmaker that can fill the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee and the National Defense Committee.

The Saenuri and Minjoo parties have been compiling a list of standing committee lawmakers, which has not yet been made public. But an analysis of media surveys indicates only a few lawmakers wish to join the Foreign Affairs Committee, including the Saenuri Party’s Lee Ju-young, who is entering into his fifth term, and Jeong Yang-seok, as well as the Minjoo Party’s Chin Young, a former health minister.

About three lawmakers want to join the Defense Committee, including Saenuri’s Lee Jong-myung, a proportional representative and a former army colonel who lost both his legs in a landmine explosion while trying to save a fellow officer near the demilitarized zone in 2000.

The Saenuri Party has also prioritized the need to head other powerful standing committees in the upcoming National Assembly, such as the parliamentary Legislation and Judiciary Committee. While the Foreign Affairs Committee and Defense Committee were traditionally headed by a lawmaker belonging to the president’s party, Saenuri has indicated it could yield to other parties.

The lack of foreign affairs, security and unification experts is a reflection of the difficulties and controversies surrounding these issues that candidates would rather avoid to garner votes.

During the general election campaigns the parties were focused on issues other than foreign affairs and security, namely the economy, welfare policies and employment.

The People’s Party, did not make a single foreign affairs or security related pledge. Out of some 180 pledges that the Saenuri made during campaigning, just 15, or 8 percent, were related to foreign affairs or security issues.

“While foreign affairs and security issues require expertise, these areas aren’t useful for drawing out votes,” said an official of the Saenuri Party, who requested anonymity. The official added, “The election pledges this time around reflect such a reality.”

“There is expected to be a big gap because there appears to be a lack of lawmakers knowledgeable in the key foreign affairs and security situations, such as the increased threat from North Korea because of its nuclear and missile program or the more uneasy South Korea-U.S. relations following the emergence of Trump,” said Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea studies professor at Korea University.

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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