Loose lips sink shipsStunning remarks by Korean Ambassador to Washington Lee Soo-hyuck and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo are fueling misunderstanding between Korea and the United States. Amid unprecedented chaos from the Covid-19 pandemic and extremely volatile Sino-U.S. rivalry, Korea has invited isolation with inappropriate comments from its top officials. In the meantime, North Korea is bent on denouncing the Moon Jae-in administration with vulgar words.
In a meeting with Washington correspondents last week, Ambassador Lee said, “[South] Korea is not a country forced to make a choice [between America and China] anymore. We are proud that we can make a choice on our own.” The U.S. State Department immediately issued a rare statement saying that Korea already chose which side to stand by.
For his part, Defense Minister Jeong also made imprudent remarks. In a March contribution to Defense News, a U.S.-based media outlet devoted to global military issues, he said South Korea will create a combined defense system led by Seoul once Washington transfers its wartime operational control to South Korea. In response, a former commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea demanded explanations from the Defense Ministry. “Minister Jeong seems to have a misunderstanding about the transfer,” he said.
In principle, what Jeong said is correct: if the transfer is made, South Korea is supposed to take a leading role in the Combined Forces Command in Seoul while the U.S. plays a supporting role. However, there are realistic grounds for the former U.S. commander to cast doubts on Jeong’s remarks, as our military has not been fully prepared to take over the leading role. Another factor — Washington’s deepening concerns about the South Korean government’s attitude toward China — also plays a part. The United States may have been surprised to see the defense minister proudly talk as if wartime operational control is already transferred.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump decided to reduce the size of U.S. Forces in Germany to 25,000 soldiers from the current 34,500. He made the decision without any prior consultation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Korea’s security situation is much graver than Germany’s.
North Korea missed a call from South Korea through the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong for the first time since the reopening of the office in 2018. The threat from Kim Yo-jong, a sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, to shut the office and scrap the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement will most likely freeze relations. In times of such heightened tension, the government must act discreetly and support its alliance with the United States.