Wrong choice for top envoyIn a partial cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in replaced Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha with Chung Eui-yong, former director of the National Security Office (NSO). The minister for culture and sports and minister for SMEs and startups are also to be replaced with lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party (DP), both members of a pro-Roh Moo-hyun group who served in the Roh Blue House. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) criticized the replacements as another example of “revolving-door appointments.” A spokesman for the PPP lamented a “critical lack of candidates for ministerial positions” in the ruling camp.
Outgoing Foreign Minister Kang has been under attack for incompetence for three years and seven months since her appointment shortly after the launch of the liberal administration. She earned nicknames such as the “invisible minister” and a “doll” after the Korea-U.S. alliance and Korea-Japan relations deteriorated markedly. And yet, President Moon steadfastly kept her around on the job. In the meantime, Korea found itself isolated on the diplomatic stage.
After Moon’s nomination of Chung as his new foreign minister, diplomatic experts linked it to the need for the president to rekindle the defunct Korean Peninsula Peace Process with Chung before Moon’s term expires in May 2022. In a New Year’s press conference, the president recalled the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore and proposed to start all over. As head of the NSO in the Blue House, Chung mediated the summit between outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The problem is that new U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has very different ideas. Biden regards the Trump-Kim summit mediated by Chung as a “reality show without an outcome,” and believes it only helped raise the North Korean leader’s international stature. Asked about the North Korean nuclear issue in a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Antony Blinken — Biden’s pick for Secretary of State and Chung’s counterpart — said, “It’s a problem that has not gotten better — in fact, it’s gotten worse.” He said he will start “a full review of the U.S. approach to North Korea.” We seriously wonder why Moon picked Chung, who brokered the botched Kim-Trump summit in Singapore. Talk about backing a losing horse.
On the issue of whether to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) between Seoul and Tokyo in 2019, Chung did not share Washington’s position favoring an extension. When Korea-Japan relations deteriorated, he could not mend fences. Coupled with a local court’s ruling on compensation for former comfort women, Korea and Japan face an uphill diplomatic battle. Is he the person to re-establish the alliance and address the ongoing conflict with Japan? Hardly.