Security lineup wants to engage North

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Security lineup wants to engage North

President Moon Jae-in’s national security team has two advocates of dialogue with North Korea as deputy chiefs, an attempt by the liberal president to thaw frozen inter-Korean relations.

Lee Sang-chul, a Sungshin University professor and former defense ministry official, was named Wednesday the first vice chief of the National Security Office. Kim Ki-jung, a political science professor from Yonsei University, was named second vice chief. They will report to Chung Eui-yong, head of the office.

The first vice chief will be in charge of national security, defense reform, peace and arms control. The second vice chief will supervise foreign affairs, unification policy, information integration and cyber security.

“A military expert was appointed as the first vice chief and a foreign affairs expert was named as the second,” said Park Soo-hyun, presidential spokesman.

A series of appointments by Moon for top security posts indicate his desire to return to dialogue with North Korea if possible and to find more balance in Korea’s diplomacy, which heavily relies on the alliance with the United States.

Lee, a retired brigadier general, is a veteran of inter-Korean talks. He was a member of the South Korean team when the two Koreas negotiated the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea, signed in 1991.

Since then, he participated in various inter-Korean talks. He was the Defense Ministry representative for the six-party talks. In 2007, he was also the chief negotiator of the inter-Korean general-level military talks to follow through on the summit earlier that year between then President Roh Moo-hyun and then North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Lee was also the chief negotiator for the South when the two Koreas had secret contacts in 2012. The Lee Myung-bak administration cut all official dialogue with the North after the North sank the Cheonan warship in March 2010. During the 2012 talks, the North demanded the resumption of humanitarian assistance, while the South demanded an apology for torpedoing the Cheonan. The talks saw no progress.

Although the contacts remained secret, they were revealed last year in the aftermath of then President Park Geun-hye’s abuse of power scandal. Shortly after her presidential victory in December 2012, Park was to meet with President Lee. Choi Soon-sil, her longtime friend, who is accused of influencing state affairs although she held no government office, coached Park to ask questions about the secret talks.

“The military recently had three secret talks with the North’s National Defense Commission,” Choi wrote in the document.

In 2002, while still on active duty, Lee stressed in his doctoral thesis the need to rebalance the Korea-U.S. alliance. He said the Korean military will be able to secure autonomy by regaining wartime operational control from the United States and improving the command structure of the Korea-U.S. combined forces command.

One of Moon’s presidential pledges was to complete the transition of wartime command during his five-year presidency.

In 2006, Seoul and Washington agreed to complete the transfer by 2012. The plan, however, was delayed after Moon’s two conservative predecessors renegotiated the timing. The latest arrangement was made in 2014 that the transfer will take place when Korea is capable of countering the North’s nuclear and missile threats, which will presumably be in the mid-2020s.

Kim is also an advocate of inter-Korean reconciliation and a more balanced alliance with the United States. He assisted Moon throughout the campaign to support his foreign and security policymaking.

In February, Kim visited Washington as Moon’s envoy. Moon was the presidential frontrunner at the time, and Kim promoted Moon’s foreign and security visions to the U.S. government, congress and think tanks.

Moon’s plan to focus on engagement with the North was already shown when he named Chung, a former diplomat, as the head of the National Security Office. In past administrations, former military officials were often appointed to the post.

Kang Kyung-wha, foreign minister-designate, also said Thursday that her belief remains unchanged that resuming talks with the North is necessary and that humanitarian aid must be offered without political strings attached.

The Blue House tried to downplay concerns that Moon’s security team is too eager to engage the North. “The nuclear crisis is a diplomatic challenge that we have to resolve through international cooperation from various angles,” said presidential spokesman Park. “It is premature to say that the appointments are intended to engage the North amid continuing international sanctions.”

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