In defense of Song
Song, who once served as head of the Korean Navy, is a renowned specialist in maritime warfare. Admiral Yi, who saw 23 victories in 23 battles, is remembered as a hero.
During his time, Yi faced endless interventions by King Seonjo and officials who had no knowledge of sea battles. The king and cabinet intervened in Yi’s operations with political judgments and in the name of national strategy, but their political judgments and strategy were often aimed at extending the reign of the ruling faction.
Yi refused to follow the court’s orders because he wanted to protect the soldiers and people. The king handed down the death penalty to Yi, though the admiral was eventually just purged. One of the lessons from the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 is that we must be watchful of the arrogance and ulterior motives of people who ignore a war specialist.
President Moon Jae-in’s aides are not experts in war, but they still denied the naval strategy of Minister Song and insulted him. On Friday, Song responded to a question at the National Assembly about a naval blockade on North Korea. “There was a discussion in the government that if the United States makes a request, we will not reject it and consider it,” Song said.
A senior Blue House aide appeared before reporters around the same time and made a declaration. “There was no discussion of a naval blockade when President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump had a phone call on Nov. 30,” he said. “There was no government discussion of a naval blockade. As of now, there is no talk about it.”
It was a direct attack on Song. The attack was based on strange logic, distorted facts and unwise remarks.
First, Song’s response was based on a hypothetical situation in the future should the United States make such a request. The Blue House, however, denied his remark by citing that the two presidents had not talked about it the previous day. Even if they had not talked about it the previous day, there is still a possibility in the future.
The Blue House official also distorted some facts. He said a naval blockade was not discussed within the government, but it was true that Song and Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser, recently discussed a message posted by U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson on the department’s website shortly after the North’s provocation. It said the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from North Korea.
Tillerson singled out Canada, South Korea and Japan as partners. It is a fact that Song and Chung exchanged the view that if Tillerson makes such a request in the future, Seoul has to consider it positively. They discussed the possibility of maritime interdiction, a step that can lead to a naval blockade.
In our reality, maritime interdiction and naval blockade are not strictly differentiated. Unless the Blue House wanted to attack Song, it should have said, “There was no discussion of a naval blockade, but there was a discussion on maritime interdiction.” That should have been the honest approach.
Finally, the Blue House official acted unwisely because he gave the impression that the administration disapproves of a naval blockade. That can invite misunderstanding that the presidential office is attempting to interfere with a military operation that did not even start with political reasoning. The Blue House went further later in the afternoon, making clear that Song’s response at the National Assembly was “his personal opinion.”
Under the Constitution, only the president and cabinet ministers have the power to run state affairs. Blue House aides do not have powers delegated by the people to run the country. They have no authority to single out a minister’s official remarks at the National Assembly as “his personal opinion.”
As the presidential aides went freely to insult the minister, speculation grew that it was the president’s intent. Now is the time for Moon to make things clear. If the defense minister, whose job is to prepare for war, cannot say that he will conduct a naval blockade against an enemy, we are not living in a normal country.
President Moon must make a choice. He must hold his aides accountable for going beyond their authority, or he must replace Minister Song.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 4, Page 34
*The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.