Moon reshuffles to concentrate on North, security
President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday replaced key members of his cabinet and aides at the Blue House, naming Chung Eui-yong, a former presidential chief for national security affairs, as the new foreign minister.
Hwang Hee, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), was appointed minister of culture, sports and tourism, and Kwon Chil-seung, another DP lawmaker, was named minister of SMEs and startups, according to the Blue House.
Moon also replaced four aides in the Blue House. Kim Hyoung-zhin, a veteran diplomat with a strong background in U.S. policy, was appointed second deputy director of the National Security Office of the Blue House. Kim’s predecessor, Kim Hyun-chong, was named the president’s special advisor.
The reshuffle, particularly of key members handling foreign affairs and national security, is part of the Moon administration’s preparation to deal with the new U.S. administration, particularly on North Korea issues.
“The government will strengthen the [Korea]-U.S. alliance in step with the launch of the [Joe] Biden administration,” Moon said in a New Year’s address earlier this month. “At the same time, we will make our final effort to achieve a major breakthrough in the stalled North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue.”
The three minister nominees will have to go through National Assembly hearings, but Moon does not need the legislature’s approval to appoint them.
Chung is one of the main architects of the administration’s North Korea policy, known as the Korean Peninsula peace process. The 74-year-old former diplomat with over 30 years of experience served as Moon’s first director of the National Security Office from May 2017 till July 2020. After leaving that post, he has been serving as Moon’s special adviser on foreign affairs and national security.
The Blue House said Moon selected Chung for his in-depth understanding of foreign affairs and national security. Moon expects him as foreign minister to reinforce the Korea-U.S. alliance, Chung Man-ho, presidential senior secretary for public affairs, said.
“Chung is a veteran who dedicated his life to the field of foreign affairs and national security,” Chung Man-ho said. “While serving as the Moon administration’s national security director for three years, he coordinated all issues between Korea and the United States and was most deeply involved in the North-U.S. negotiations and major policies to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”
Moon also expects the new foreign minister to elevate Korea’s prestige by promoting the Korean Peninsula peace process and policies to engage southern and northern countries, the presidential aide said.
Chung and Suh Hoon, the former National Intelligence Service director who succeeded Chung as director of national security at the Blue House, are the principal architects of the Moon administration’s foreign and national security policies. In March 2018, the two visited Pyongyang as Moon’s special envoys and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Following that visit, Chung traveled to the United States and met with U.S. President Donald Trump.
That series of meetings led to the inter-Korean summit in April 2018 and the historic North-U.S. summit in Singapore two months later.
“Moon is expressing his intention to push forward his North Korea policy by naming Chung, who oversaw Korean Peninsula issues for more than three years, as his new foreign minister,” a former member of the Blue House’s National Security Office told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Chung is the only person who has experience in dealing with both the Korea-U.S. alliance and inter-Korean relations.”
With Chung’s joining of the cabinet, Moon is making clear that North Korea is his top priority in foreign affairs and national security. In addition to Chung and Suh, Moon named Park Jie-won, a veteran politician with experience in negotiation with North Korea for the Kim Dae-jung administration, as National Intelligence Service director last July. Unification Minister Lee In-young and former Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok, currently serving as a special advisor, are also North Korea experts.
The Foreign Ministry has already shifted its priority to inter-Korean relations. In August 2020, Moon named Choi Jong-kun, who was in charge of North Korea issues in the Blue House’s National Security Office, as the first vice minister of the ministry.
Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Noh Kyu-duk was Choi’s successor. Noh was appointed to the chief negotiator post in December.
Moon also hired an elite diplomat as the second director of the National Security Office of the Blue House, bolstering the administration’s conventional diplomatic capability with the United States. Kim Hyoung-zhin served in key posts in the Foreign Ministry and worked as the foreign affairs secretary in the Park Geun-hye Blue House. “He has comprehensive insights into U.S. and North Korea issues and diplomatic experience in dealing with the United States and China,” Kang Min-seok, spokesman of the Blue House, said.
According to a source, Kim’s appointment is aimed at coordinating policies with the Biden administration. “We have expectations for him to successfully push forward foreign policy,” he said. “He was the director-general of the North America Bureau of the Foreign Ministry when Biden was the vice president, so we can say that he has contacts with the Biden administration.”
The appointments also reflect Seoul’s intention to accommodate the Biden administration’s foreign policy. “In terms of Asia strategy, the new administration is focused on restoring Korea-Japan relations and strengthening trilateral ties among Korea, Japan and United States to counter China in terms of a multilateral trade strategy,” said Kim Young-joon, a New York State lawyer who participated in Biden’s campaign.
Speculation also arose that Moon replaced Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha because of North Korea’s condemnations of her. Moon has kept Kang, appointed to the post shortly after he took office in May 2017, despite political pressure to sack her for shortcomings in managing Korea-Japan relations.
Last month, Kang said it was hard to believe Pyongyang’s claim that the country has no Covid-19 patients. North Korean leader Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, responded by saying Kang must want to “bring a chill to the frozen relationship between the two countries based on absurd remarks without any calculations.
"We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it," Kim also said.
It was not the first time a cabinet member of the Moon administration was replaced after North Korea’s condemnations.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul was sacked two weeks after Kim Yo-jong criticized him last June. Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo was replaced two months after criticism from Pyongyang.
The opposition People Power Party (PPP) on Wednesday criticized Moon’s decision to replace Kang with Chung.
“We were skeptical that Moon would actually change Kang,” said PPP Rep. Cho Tae-yong, who has served as vice foreign minister. “But Kim Yo-jong’s words were effective. Kang was sacked shortly after Kim’s criticism.”
“When the United States expressed concerns about North Korea’s missile firing, Chung had said it was not a threat to Korea’s national security,” Rep. Yun Hee-suk, spokesman for the PPP, said. “Moon is just replacing people while stubbornly insisting on his policy. It reveals the painful reality that the president has no alternative or strategy.”
The Blue House denied that it sacked Kang because of North Korea’s complaints. “Multiple times since last year, Kang expressed her wish to step down because she was exhausted after having served for three years and six months, but [the president] dissuaded her,” presidential spokesman Kang said. “Because the Biden administration is starting, foreign affairs and national security officials were reshuffled to accommodate the change, and she was let go.”
BY SER MYO-JA, KANG TAE-HWA [firstname.lastname@example.org]