Defense Ministry removes post that engages North Korea
The Defense Ministry plans to scrap its current North Korea policy director post in a sign of President Yoon Suk-yeol's pivot from the dovish policies of his liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, according to ministry officials on Thursday.
In its place, the ministry will create a less powerful policy chief position to focus on crises related to North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, not engage Pyongyang.
The North Korea policy director post was created in late 2017 by the Moon administration.
He or she oversees the ministry’s North Korea policy office, the nuclear crisis management office, the aerospace and missile policies office and the arms control policy office, as well as overseeing inter-Korean military talks.
Given its broad mandate, the position was considered a key Defense Ministry post and pivotal to policy coordination between the ministry and the presidential National Security Office.
“The [North Korea policy] director was so powerful that he directly discussed North Korea-related issues with the National Security Office without reporting them to the defense minister,” said one high-ranking military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to the JoongAng Ilbo.
The official added that the North Korea policy director pushed the Moon administration’s policy preferences with regards to Pyongyang, and that this tendency caused some tensions within the Defense Ministry.
Defense officials voiced strong concerns about the effect of Moon’s North Korea policy on the military following the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration and the Sept. 19 Inter-Korean Military Agreement in 2018, the fruits of three inter-Korean summits that took place that year.
Military officials expressed concerns that the policies pursued by Moon's government could undermine the country’s defense posture, and felt this was ignored by the North Korea policy director.
“We suggested [to the director] several times that some of the guard posts [in the border region] that were due to be demolished under the inter-Korean military agreement should be maintained for patrols and other operations, but this advice was ignored,” said one former field commander who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to defense insiders, the Defense Ministry plans to move the North Korea policy office and arms control policy office under a different ministerial department, leaving only the aerospace and missile policies office and nuclear crisis management under the newly-establish defense policy chief position.
The downgrading of the North Korea policy director post appears aimed at preventing dialogue with Pyongyang from affecting the military’s defensive posture.
“[The relocation of policy offices] means that there will an effective division between branches of the ministry tasked with dialogue with the North and other offices that manage tensions and crises that may arise,” said one military official who spoke on condition of anonymity,” adding that the new defense policy chief would “focus on military tensions.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]