On July 3, 2020, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in partially reshuffled his staff in leadership roles by replacing the Unification Minister, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director and the Director of the Blue House National Security Office. Some experts viewed the changes as a sign the government was seeking “to focus on inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation no matter how this” clashed with the US and its policy or as a “move to find a breakthrough in stalled relations with North Korea and to push harder for inter-Korean projects”. But is this really so?
Fifty six year old Lee In-young, the new Unification Minister, is a well known figure who served as the first President of the National Council of Student Representatives in the 1980s (Kor. Jeondaehyeop, a “pro-democracy student movement”), and who “was one of the leading activists behind the 1987 nationwide democratic uprising against the authoritarian government of general-turned-president Chun Doo-hwan”. Lee In-young began his career in politics in 1999. “He was elected to the National Assembly” four times, and as a lawmaker, he was “a member of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee”. In 2018, Lee In-young was the Chairman of the special committee for inter-Korean economic cooperation. And from 2019 to 2020, he served as Floor Leader of the Democratic Party.
Lee In-young told reporters that he had gone through “the nomination process with a desperate urgency to reopen the way toward peace” before the door closed. He also “emphasized the need to resume dialogue between the two Koreas” and to realize the commitments made earlier, “including cooperation on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts”.
His predecessor Kim Yeon-chul, the former President of the Korea Institute for National Unification, was appointed to the ministerial position on March 8, 2019. He became famous for stating that he would do anything in his power “to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula”, as envisioned by Moon Jae-in, and that he would “come up with creative measures to help” North Korea and the United States “to meet as soon as possible and find a breakthrough” after the failed Hanoi summit. In his social media posts, Kim Yeon-chul even cast doubt on official accounts of the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in the past, which is why conservative lawmakers tried to block his confirmation. He resigned “over worsened relations with Pyongyang following the North’s demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office” in Kaesong. It is, therefore, hard to say that a proponent of the US approach to negotiations with the DPRK has been replaced with a staunch supporter of independent policies. In reality, another left-leaning politician and a member of Moon Jae-in’s inner circle has now become the new Unification Minister.
The reshuffle concerned three more top posts, with officials who served in them moving to even higher positions in government instead of leaving the political arena.
The author would like to start the discussion with the new National Intelligence Service Director. Seventy-eight year old Park Jie-won is an even more well-known figure than Lee In-young among those who remember the past. Park Jie-won was a businessman in Los Angeles when he first got involved in politics after meeting Kim Dae-jung in the 1970s, when the latter, i.e. the future President of South Korea, was in exile in the United States. Park Jie-won was a close confidant to Kim Dae-jung and played a key role “in arranging the historic first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000”, which the ex-President subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize for.
During Kim Dae-jung’s presidency from 1998 to 2003, Park Jie-won served as “his Press Secretary, Culture Minister, Senior Policy Secretary and Chief of Staff”. In fact, he still refers to himself as a “perpetual Chief of Staff to President Kim”.
Park Jie-won was a staunch supporter of Kim Dae-jung but not of Roh Moo-hyun who turned against members of his predecessor’s inner circle and imprisoned Park Jie-won for “extorting from the Hyundai Company KRW 15 billion”, which had been sent “to the DPRK as a secret payment for holding the Pyongyang 2000 Summit”. In fact, the investigation into the matter had been initiated during Kim Dae-jung’s presidency by members of the opposition party, and once Roh Moo-hyun came to power, he chose to “bury” the supporter of the former President. After receiving a special pardon in 2007, Park Jie-won returned to politics and subsequently joined the left-wing People’s Party and not the Democratic Party of Korea (DP), where Roh Moo-hyun’s supporters still dominated (including Moon-Jae-in who had served as his Chief of Staff). On April 15, 2020, Park Jie-won, a member of the minor opposition Minsaeng Party, lost to a DP candidate to the National Assembly in the electoral district of Mokpo.
The fact that such an individual was rescued from political obscurity and nominated to lead the NIS indicates the following. Firstly, the decision serves as an admission by the current leadership that Park Jie-won is viewed as a much more trustworthy politician in the DPRK in comparison to members of Moon Jae-in’s circle. And South Korea’s government needs such an individual in their midst in order to restart the stalled inter-Korean dialogue. The author would like to remind his readers that during a rise in tensions between the DPRK and South Korea in June, Seoul offered to send special envoys – Chung Eui-yong, the Director of the Blue House National Security Office, and Suh Hoon, the Head of the National Intelligence Service, at the time – to the North. However, Pyongyang flatly rejected Seoul’s overtures, calling the proposal “tactless and sinister”.
Secondly, the nomination suggests that the NIS will, in the future, not only engage in its usual activities but also work on establishing ties with North Korea (including “behind-the scenes” ones).
Thirdly, although choosing an outsider for the role could be viewed as a decision made by Moon Jae-in for everyone’s benefit, Park Jie-won will, in fact, be tasked with all the groundwork, while all of his initiatives will still have to be approved by the aforementioned Chung Eui-yong and Suh Hoon.
Both of the officials have been promoted, Suh Hoon is to serve as the head of Blue House’s National Security Office. Suh Hoon became the NIS Director at the very start of Moon Jae-in’s presidency. He was viewed as an expert on the DPRK, who, according to media outlets, had a network of informal contacts in North Korea. In his post as the head of the National Intelligence Service, he did not gain either fame or notoriety. However, the number of false reports about the DPRK decreased during his tenure.
Suh Hoon pointed out that he was taking on the role as Director of National Security at Cheong Wa Dae “at a grave time both internally and externally”. He promised to “respond prudently to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula” and to “also prepare to move boldly sometimes”. Suh Hoon also noted that the goal of Moon Jae-in’s administration was to “systemically establish peace on the peninsula and that it would make ceaseless efforts to achieve complete denuclearization”. He also said it was “important to get sustained support from the international community” for ROK’s North Korea policy and not to “neglect communication with neighboring countries”, especially with allies like the United States.
The fact that Suh Hoon mentioned “complete denuclearization” and stressed that the US was a vital ally provides sufficient proof to indicate he is not a pro-Pyongyang politician.
Chung Eui-yong was Suh Hoon’s predecessor at the Blue House. Many remember him for the role he played in establishing a dialogue between the US and the DPRK, and for his ability to convince each of these nations that the other was willing to compromise. Chung Eui-yong served in his former post since the beginning of Moon Jae-in’s presidency. Thus, by South Korean standards, he could be viewed as a long-serving politician. Before his appointment as Director of National Security at Cheong Wa Da, he had been a career diplomat who focused on US-related affairs much of that time.
Moon Jae-in decided to appoint Chung Eui-yong as a Special Advisor to the President for National Security, thus showing his continued trust in the politician. In his new role, he will wield more power but have fewer formal responsibilities.
The second Special Advisor to the President for Foreign Affairs is another familiar figure. Im Jong-seok was a former presidential Chief of Staff “deeply involved in the three inter-Korean summits”, and is the head of “the Foundation for Inter-Korea Cooperation, a private nonprofit organization, focusing on the unification of the two Koreas”. Just as Lee In-young, Im Jong-seok was a former leader of a pro-democracy and pro-unification student organization during the 1980s (in 1991, he was imprisoned for facilitating an unauthorized visit by Lim Su-kyung, an activist and politician, to North Korea). He is well known for a stance independent to that of the United States.
Im Jong-seok is a staunch advocate of inter-Korean reconciliation. In the past, he urged the Ministry of Unification not to follow Washington’s lead as, according to the US position, “inter-Korean economic cooperation should proceed in step with significant progress in denuclearizing” North Korea. A number of conservatives viewed him as the second most prominent “communist” after Moon Jae-in and constantly demanded his resignation. Im Jong-seok was eventually forced to leave his post after coming under scrutiny for his role in a number of scandals, including the surveillance row. After resigning from his position on January 8, 2019, Im Jong-seok essentially left politics by announcing “he would not run in” the next elections and saying he planned “to focus on campaigning outside the politics of the establishment for the reunification of the two Koreas”.
Ahead of the April 15 general election, Im Jong-seok “was back in the media spotlight amid rampant speculation over his next career move”. He made a few speeches but kept his word and did not run in the election. The former politician was then widely expected to replace Kim Yeon-chul.
The appointments of Chung Eui-yong and Im Jong-seok raise an interesting question: “What happened to Moon Chung-in, a professor at Yonsei University, who served as a Special Advisor to the President for Foreign Affairs and National Security?”. He certainly has left-leaning views. In fact, Moon Chung-in has been reprimanded by the President on several occasions for speaking too freely. Although some experts believe that Moon Chung-in actually says whatever the President of South Korea is actually thinking, it would be wrong to view the professor as a member of Moon Jae-in’s inner circle (unlike Chung Eui-yong and Im Jong-seok). He would be best described as a key opinion leader amid left-wing members of the Democratic Party of Korea.
For now, his role has been split into two and it is yet unclear what will happen next.
Overall, the reshuffle can be described as follows.
- In general, Moon Jae-in’s administration has been given a makeover, a ritual before any crisis. It is not worth talking about a change to the party line as yet. The Unification Minister holds similar political views to that of his predecessor.
- Moon Jae-in’s inner circle remains intact. In fact, its members have seemingly gained more power and influence by strengthening the left wing. And although both Lee In-young and Im Jong-seok were proponents of pro-democracy movements, they ought to be viewed as Moon Jae-in’s staunch and faithful supporters in any factional infighting.
- It would seem that Park Jie-won is the only politician who is not mired by Moon Jae-in’s political games and who Pyongyang can trust. If he manages to make some changes, it will be a win for everyone, and if not, a coach will be responsible for the defeat (while the whole team is credited with a victory), as the saying in football goes.
- As for Moon Jae-in’s political games, he appears to have thrown a curveball. And we will have to wait and see what effect it will have on the “Olympic thaw” in relations between the two Koreas.
- After all, his actions should not be viewed as simply a push to restart the stalled inter-Korean dialogue but also as a move to strengthen positions of members of his inner circle in the national security sphere, in general. And this means preparations for the next presidential election are already underway slowly but surely.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.