A dangerous startAfter a Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee meeting Monday in the National Assembly, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) unilaterally endorsed the nomination of Chung Eui-yong, former National Security Advisor to President Moon Jae-in, as Foreign Minister. Members of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) opposed the endorsement citing “diplomatic and security problems caused by Chung under the Moon administration” but to no avail. Confirmation hearings for top government officials have always proceeded in such a lopsided manner under the Moon presidency.
If Chung is appointed foreign minister by Moon, many problems are expected. The first comes from a widening gap between Seoul and Washington over North Korean issues. As foreign minister, Chung must first deal with the United States. But the U.S. Department of State immediately refuted what Chung said in the confirmation hearing. After Chung reiterated his belief that North Korea has a “willingness to denuclearize” and peace has arrived on the Korean Peninsula, the State Department pointed to Pyongyang’s uninterrupted desire to reinforce its military power.
In the eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party in January, North Korea changed the goal of its South Korean policy from a “unification based on a federal system” to a “unification by nuclear weapons.” At the same time, it vowed to develop ICBMs and SLBMs capable of striking South Korea and the U.S. mainland.
South Korea is living under a constant nuclear threat from the North. Chung’s rush to broker another U.S.-North summit in the face of such discrepancies can lead to another diplomatic fumble. In a sharp contrast with Donald Trump, new U.S. President Joe Biden does not want to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unless he puts into action a promise to denuclearize.
The Moon administration could send a wrong message to Washington out of its desperation to bring about some tangible results in inter-Korean relations. In Monday’s hearing, Chung did not treat the two North Korean fishermen, who allegedly murdered their colleagues on a boat, as “our nationals.” The government repatriated them. But a forced repatriation of defectors is a violation of our Constitution that defines them as our nationals.
Seoul’s relations with Beijing also are a concern. Despite Biden’s determination to compete with China on global issues, the Moon administration continues to take a pro-Beijing stance. South Korea faces a plethora of diplomatic challenges, including deep disagreement with Japan. We hope Chung as foreign minister puts our diplomacy back on a sensible track.