Strange diplomatic lineupThe foreign affairs and security chiefs were not affected by the Moon Jae-in administration’s cabinet reshuffle as the liberal president reaches the halfway point of his five-year term. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, who have been on board since the administration’s launch in May 2017, have often been criticized for their ineptness in intelligence and judgment. Having lost contact with their U.S. counterparts, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Kang and Chung had to find out about the breakdown in the Vietnam summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un via TV reports. Their ham-handedness could have caused embarrassment in the Blue House on the day of the summit because they were totally in the dark about the sullen mood in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Instead, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon — known to be realistic about the intentions of Pyongyang and Washington and a font of prudent advice to his boss — was let go. Cho will be replaced by Kim Yeon-chul, head of the Korea Institute of National Unification, who used to serve on Moon’s campaign team. Kim opposed the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Park, and, in January, called for an easing of sanctions on North Korea. Selecting an idealistic scholar to be in control of the government’s unification policy raises concerns about the Blue House’s attempt to push for the reopening of the joint industrial park in the North and tours to Mount Kumgang regardless of Washington’s strong opposition.
The mood in Washington has turned decisively negative after denuclearization talks broke down in Hanoi. U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, who chairs a subcommittee on East Asia, voiced opposition to any changes in the sanctions unless North Korea makes “concrete steps towards denuclearization.” He stressed that easing off on pressure and sacrificing joint military readiness were a “wrong direction.”
The ruling Democratic Party has been pitching for a greater mediating role for Moon following the collapse of the Hanoi meeting. But keeping the foreign and security chiefs in office — despite the fact that they have obvious lost the confidence of their U.S. counterparts — and recruiting someone who champions renewed inter-Korean ventures could send a wrong message to both Pyongyang and Washington. The government must stay firm on international sanctions and become more clear-eyed in its North Korea policy.
JoongAng Sunday, March 9-10, Page 30