National Security Advisor of the Republic of Korea (to put it bluntly, a key advisor on foreign and national security affairs of South Korea) said that he was stepping down on March 29, 2023, less than a month before President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the United States.
Kim stated in a press release, “When I was offered the position by the president a year ago, I told him I would establish a foundation for restoring the South Korea-US alliance, improving South Korea-Japan relations, strengthening security cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan.” He will return to his prior position at Korea University now that “such conditions have been met to some extent.”
Kim expressed confidence that his successor will be able to carry out his responsibilities smoothly because preparations for the president’s visit to the United States are proceeding well. He consitnued that he did not want “the dispute he caused” to become a further burden for the South Korean diplomacy and public affairs. “Even after returning to university, I will continue to do my best for the success of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.”
A replacement was quickly found. Cho Tae-yong, former Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United States will take over for Kim Sung-han.
This is a crucial moment in South Korean politics. First, Kim is one of the president’s longtime acquaintances and could even be called Yoon Sook-yeol’s mentor in foreign policy. Kim is an Americanist, and it was obvious from the start that he would be in charge of foreign policy and security. Kim was one of the president’s most ardent supporters at this point, thus his resignation cannot be interpreted as an indication of factionalism. Nevertheless, such an iconic person left power rather early, and even more so in the midst of preparing a state visit to the United States. Almost every English-language source stated that the resignation came “amid reported trouble planning President Yoon Suk-yeol’s April 26 state visit to Washington.”
The resignation’s timing is extremely unique in terms of “changing horses halfway through”. The South Korea-US summit will take place in Washington on April 26. Afterwards, Yoon will attend G7 Hiroshima Summit in Japan from May 11 to 13, and have a South Korea-US-Japan summit on the sidelines of it.
Secondly, there was a lot of interesting commotion following Kim’s resignation. On March 28, the Presidential Administration denied the Donga Ilbo newspaper report that Kim could be replaced “over a planning issue related to President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the United States next month.” “That article is different from the truth,” a presidential official told reporters. Then Kim stepped down, leaving everyone to question if the resignation was not fully voluntary or if the choice was taken at the last minute in any case.
Thirdly, this is not the only resignation. Presidential Protocol Secretary Kim Il-beom resigned on March 10; Lee Moon-hee, Secretary to the President for Foreign Affairs, was also replaced two weeks later. The official reason stated was “suffering from a heavy workload over the past year“, and this author has frequently noticed in prior texts that such situations are not seen as coincidences, even though they truly may be coincidental.
In addition, the media are already discussing that on the eve of the 2024 parliamentary elections, Foreign Minister Park Jin and Unification Minister Kwon Young-se will both resign from their current positions in order to run for a seat in the National Assembly.
Kim, in contrast to the other people in Yoon’s entourage, acted quite rightly and kept out of trouble. Because of this, there have been many squabbles and speculations in response to the National Security Advisor’s resignation on the eve of the president’s visit to the United States.
The main topic that has been widely discussed in the ROK media is that American First Lady Jill Biden, who has a passion for Korean culture, proposed having K-pop girl group Blackpink and American pop star Lady Gaga perform together at the gala dinner. At the same time, the US has suggested that South Korea take on the cost of the concert in the amount of about $2-3 million. The plan, however, was not sent to the presidential office in a timely manner, and as a result, the US government had to repeatedly ask South Korea for a response because of lack of feedback with the presidential office.
Nevertheless, the presidential office announced on March 31 that the performance being reported in the media was not included in the president’s official schedule for his visit to the United States. The statement offers no further justification for this choice and does not specifically name the group being discussed (although everyone knows who they are talking about).
According to the conservative JoongAng Ilbo, Kim Sung-han’s resignation may have been the result of a discord with Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy national security advisor, who is even more right-wing. Its editorial emphasizes that “such dubious episodes pose grave risks to national security and diplomacy. The presidential office must ensure that Yoon’s diplomatic schedules will not be affected. The presidential office must clearly explain what happened and find effective solutions to such mishaps.”
Democrats have their own interpretations. Park Hong-keun, the DP’s floor leader, “raised suspicions of problems within the presidential National Security Office, citing reports that there was a power struggle and a conflict between an official close to first lady Kim Keon Hee and another official formerly from the foreign ministry.”
In this context, on March 30, the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) called on President Yoon Suk-yeol to explain why former National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han resigned: people are concerned Yoon’s trip to Washington will end up like his trip to Japan earlier this month, calling on Yoon not to risk the “national interest” and “people’s dignity” when the future of domestic companies are at stake in his trip to the US.
There are, in the author’s opinion, a number of more plausible justifications for Kim Sung-han’s resignation. The first is that Yoon Suk-yeol has dramatically changed the direction of his foreign policy to one of outspoken support for the United States and the re-establishment of friendly relations with Japan. He had to do this despite opposition from both legislators and the bureaucrats designated by his predecessor Moon Jae-in. All of this had to have an impact on the man who was usually seen as the major architect of the “new course.” Hence, from the perspective of that “he has done his job and can leave”, there may be a lot of truth to this, as burnout and exhaustion in such a position are detrimental.
The second explanation can be related to the fallout from Yoon’s trip to Japan, which sparked controversy in South Korea. Although the Democrats have been very active in rocking the boat on this matter, there haven’t been any outright accusations or demands that Kim Sung-han be fired. However, the seasoned politician was probably aware that Yoon would contact him, so it’s important to put a stop to this possibility. The ideal scenario would also prevent Kim’s departure from coming across as a scapegoat, as that would be seen as a triumph for the opposition, from whose pressure and particular actions the advisor was fired. Technically, no one was dismissed in this case.
The third justification relates to Yoon’s obligation to “show up with a basket of goodies” to symbolize the infamous “global strategic partnership between Seoul and Tokyo” during the president’s state visit to the United States, as the president’s political opponents rightly point out. In this case, the Americans can demand a lot. And, let’s face it, most of this is not in South Korea’s best interests. As a result, one should rule out the prospect that Kim will succumb to American pressure. This notion may be confirmed by the fact that the South Korea Ambassador to the US is his successor, but the definitive confirmation won’t come until after the visit to the US, when we’ll most likely understand what concessions Kim Sung-han may have deemed unacceptable.
Furthermore, if this version is accurate, it would support the author’s key claim that Yoon Suk-yeol is significantly less pro-American than his vehement rhetoric would imply. And if he sometimes appears to be submitting to the United States verbally, in practice he is only working to keep his hands free. The issue is that the Americans understand this very well, and in light of the impending worldwide unrest, they obviously require a political figure who is far more submissive. The resignation at hand may be a result of the challenging circumstances and possible behind-the-scenes pressure on Seoul.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History and a leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”