Time to let go
The author is the international news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
After White House National Security Advisor John Bolton was fired by U.S. President Donald Trump through Twitter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was not surprised. Pompeo was smiling brightly, looking satisfied. “There were many times ambassador Bolton and I disagreed, that’s to be sure,” Pompeo said. He must have been extremely happy after struggling for a year and a half.
A senior U.S. government official told me a story about them. In early May 2018, a meeting took place among U.S. officials to decide the venue for the first North Korea-U.S. summit. Pompeo pushed for Singapore, but Bolton strongly disagreed. Bolton said Singapore was effectively controlled by China and he disagreed with the idea of having a summit with North Korea there. Pompeo reacted furiously. He challenged Bolton to present grounds to prove China’s influence over Singapore. As Bolton hesitated, Pompeo told him that the CIA has control over Singapore.
The two always clashed. They had different styles. Bolton always said “yes” or “no,” but Pompeo mostly said “yes” with the occasional “yes, but …” What’s important is that their conflicts were over a policy or decision-making. It was a functioning process of being checks on each other.
A similar event happened last week in Korea, but the essence was very different. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha admitted at a National Assembly hearing that she had a fight with Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hyun-chong during President Moon Jae-in’s overseas trip in April. She said, “I won’t deny it.”
After rumors spread that they fought in English — occasionally using obscenities — Kim issued an apology on Twitter. “It shows my lack of virtue,” he wrote. The two allegedly fought over some grammar errors in a report and they spread rumors about it. This unfortunate comedy of grammatical errors took place between two top foreign affairs officials.
Deputy National Security Advisor Kim is also at fault. No matter how frustrated he was toward Kang — and no matter how strong his beliefs are — he should have followed common sense. That is the proper attitude of a vice-minister-level official. He was a former minister-level official — Korea’s trade representative — who successfully concluded a renegotiation of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. He is also confident of President Moon’s trust in him. But that’s a different story. If he really thinks his position is beneath him, he should resign right now.
National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong is also accountable for the current situation. No matter how confident his subordinate is — and even if he does not want to be involved in a troublesome incident — Chung should not have left it unattended. Many criticized Chung for dereliction of duty, which eventually led to the brawl between Kim and Kang. Chung must listen to the criticism from inside and outside.
President Moon is ultimately responsible for the internal division. He must have known that Kang and Kim’s conflict has gone too far, yet he did nothing. Of course, they can argue when they have differences in opinions. In fact, if a debate over a policy gets fierce, that’s a good thing. But this was not about a policy. They fought over differences in their styles in an emotional turf war.
The bickering between the two top officials has already become a joke among foreign diplomats in Korea. Korea’s diplomacy is already on uncertain ground with the United States, Japan, China, Russia and North Korea. Trump may abandon the Korea-U.S. alliance at any time if he thinks it’s better for U.S. interests. And yet, the top diplomats in Korea are having an internal power struggle. This is an unprecedented crisis.
The time has come for Moon to choose between Kang and Kim. He can hardly keep both. Whether he makes Kim the foreign minister or empowers Kang more, the president must make a choice. Or else, the confusion will only grow. Moon may choose a new face as the new foreign minister. Since Bolton’s successor has little knowledge about Korean Peninsula affairs, the U.S. State Department’s influence will likely grow, so Moon needs to reinforce the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s time for him to let go of certain people close to him, including Kang, Kim and Cho Kuk, the controversial minister of justice.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 24, Page 30