Moon’s new team set to push for inter-Korean breakthrough

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed Park Jie-won (second from left) as the new director of the National Intelligence Service and Suh Hoon (right) as the director of the National Security Office. YONHAP NEWS AGENCY/THE KOREA HERALD

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, having reshuffled his top security team with figures known to be for engagement with the North, is widely expected to push to make a breakthrough in stalled relations with Pyongyang.

On Friday, Moon tapped Suh Hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service, as his national security adviser, and nominated Park Jie-won, a former lawmaker and special envoy to North Korea, to succeed Suh as the spy chief.

Lee In-young, a four-term lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, was named Minister of Unification, filling the vacancy after Kim Yeon-chul last month resigned over frayed inter-Korean relations.

Analysts in the South say the latest shakeup is a clear indication of Moon’s strong determination to break the deadlock and move forward after the North demolishes a joint liaison office that has cast uncertainty on inter-Korean relations.

Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, told The Korea Herald: “Moon has placed security, North Korean experts at the forefront of Korean’s peninsular affairs, indicating that he is determined to find a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

”Park Jie-won and Lee In-young are veteran politicians, who could voice out more and be more driven than bureaucrats, while Suh Hoon is a well-known North Korean expert.

“Moon is intent on improving the North Korean situation and driving the peace process during his remaining term.”

Park Jie-won, who failed to secure a fifth term as a lawmaker in April’s legislative election, is known for his role in brokering the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000 as chief presidential secretary to late President Kim Dae-jung.

Park accompanied Kim on his trip to the North to meet then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, father of current leader Kim Jong-un.

He is known to have maintained a network of contacts with the North since then. He has also met two generations of the ruling Kim family, including Jong-il, Jong-un and his younger sister Yo-jong.

Moon’s pick of Park came as surprise, as the 78-year-old veteran politician is not a confidant nor a member of Moon’s ruling party. Park had locked horns with Moon for years and had left the Democratic Party in 2016 amid factional strife.

He was also jailed in 2006 for his role in secretly sending $450 million to the North ahead of the summit in 2000, and embezzling $13 million as commission in return.

In announcing the decision, Kang Min-seok, the spokesperson of Cheong Wa Dae – the South’s Presidential Blue House – said: “Nominee Park has contributed to the 2000 inter-Korean summit agreement, has high expertise in North Korean issues and he has provided advice on peninsular affairs to the incumbent government.”

Moon’s choice of Suh as a new adviser was largely foreseen, as he is the country’s top expert on North Korea.

The longtime intelligence official had taken part in arranging previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, and also played an important role in Moon’s three summits with Kim Jong-un in April, May and September 2018.

He is also known as the South Korean who met with late-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il the most and has a wide network of officials in the North.

“I have a heavy responsibility for assuming the job at a grave time both internally and externally,” said Suh after the announcement.

“We will respond prudently to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula but will also prepare to move boldly sometimes. It’s very important to continuously secure the international community’s support for our external and North Korea policy.”

Representative Lee In-young, a former floor leader of the Democratic Party and four-time lawmaker, will lead the unification ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs.

Lee, who is known for leading the pro-democracy student movement in the 1980s, has led the ruling party’s committee on developing inter-Korean ties and has shown deep interest in North Korean issues.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, stressed that the latest reshuffle reflects Moon’s determination to seek a virtuous cycle of improved inter-Korean relations and better Pyongyang-Washington negotiations.

But the security team’s heavy focus on North Korea also raises concerns.

Professor Park Won-gon added: “While the North Korean issue is critical, the ongoing US-China spat, further strained with the Covid-19 pandemic, is also a serious problem.

“Rising US-China tension will limit Seoul’s diplomatic room to manoeuvre. It’s concerning that the new team lacks a person to navigate such diplomatic issues.”