21.02.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Why South Korea Replaced its Foreign Minister


On January 20, 2021, President Moon Jae-in partially reshuffled the government, replacing three ministers. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was also relieved of her position. She was replaced by Chung Eui-yong, former head of the National Security Department of the Office of the President of the ROK.

A former interpreter for presidents, Kang Kyung-wha proved to be the longest-serving minister in the Moon administration and one of the first candidates he approved without parliamentary approval.  During her leadership, the Foreign Ministry was often the scene of high-profile scandals, diplomatic miscalculations and protocol errors. The loudest was when during a summit meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad Moon addressed him in Indonesian instead of Malay. Kang was praised by the conservative media only when she spoke out sharply about Japan’s actions.

The harassment scandal in New Zealand that we wrote about was not the only one. From 2013 through the first half of 2020, there were 25 cases of sexual harassment or assault by Foreign Ministry employees, 20 of which occurred in diplomatic missions abroad. The “reign” of Kang accounted for half of them, and it is noted that the response to incidents was slower than under Park Geun-hye. In the 2017 New Zealand story mentioned above, for example, it took more than 15 months from the time the charges were filed for the diplomat to receive just a one-month pay cut as punishment.

In late August 2020, a Korean employee at the Korean Embassy in Nigeria allegedly sexually harassed a local cleaning lady. Although the cleaning lady notified an embassy employee about the incident, the embassy did not take disciplinary action or report the incident to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul. The case was simply closed, and said Korean employee resigned the following month.

Kang was also caught in outright lies, and the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo believes that the reason for Kang’s dismissal was precisely North Korean anger over the matter.  At the time, the minister repeatedly voiced the myth that an epidemic was raging in the North, after which Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the DPRK leader, warned that South Korea “might have to pay dearly” for such words.

Many also remember the confrontation between Kang Kyung-wha and Second Deputy National Security Director Kim Hyun-chong, who oversaw foreign policy at the Blue House, amid growing concern that the Blue House ignored the Foreign Ministry in key foreign policy decisions. It was Kim who initiated the trade war with Japan, and the decision to withdraw from GSOMIA was reportedly initiated against the advice of the Ministry. On numerous occasions, Kang gave some instructions and Kim gave others, and during Moon Jae-in’s trip to Central Asia, Kim reprimanded a Foreign Ministry official in the presence of Kang. There was also a well-known incident in 2019 when a diplomat working for the United Nations had to kneel in front of Kim Hyun-chong over a mistake that led to a missed meeting between the Korean president and the Polish president on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

It also made a lot of noise when, in October 2020, the minister’s husband went on a recreational trip to the United States, despite the government’s recommendation to refrain from foreign travel for fear of spreading COVID-19.  Even Representative Kim Tae-Nyong, leader of the parliamentary faction of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, called Lee’s behavior inappropriate: “Why should one refrain from visiting his hometowns and ancestral graves on the day of ancestor remembrance, while the other travels, and what reputation do the authorities have after that?”

What is the new minister famous for? Chung, 74 years of age, graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in diplomacy, joined the diplomatic service in 1972, and has worked in the United States, Canada, Israel and Thailand. A member of the National Assembly since 2004, and after Moon became president, he served as head of the President’s Office of National Security from 2017 until July 2020. Since then, he has served as special assistant to the president on foreign and security policy.

Chung Eui-yong is “known for his role as national security advisor in guiding Moon’s policy of engagement with North Korea, which led to the first-ever summit between the United States and North Korea”. In March 2018, Chung visited Pyongyang and later met with Donald Trump while mediating a summit in June 2018. According to former national security adviser John Bolton’s recollection, the US-North summit was Chung’s idea.

In reality, though, his shuttle diplomacy consisted of going to Washington or Pyongyang and actively convincing his interlocutors that the other side had already almost agreed to their terms thanks to President Moon’s wise policies. Thus, he conveyed a message to Donald Trump that the North Korean leader was ready to give up his nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, the real progress went largely when the parties began to communicate without the padding of Seoul.

No wonder the opposition protested against Chung Eui-young, believing that his appointment was a sign of a personnel crisis. It went so far as to say that conservatives were going to invite former US presidential national security adviser John Bolton to a parliamentary hearing to openly ask him about Chung’s role in organizing summits between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, which Bolton sharply condemned as a strategic mistake.

Nevertheless, despite the People’s Power party’s demonstrative withdrawal from the meeting, the Foreign Affairs and Reunification Committee of the National Assembly approved Chung Eui-young’s candidacy for foreign minister at its February 8 meeting. Representatives of the ruling Toburo Democratic Party voted in his support, saying that if the opposition rejected the candidate without good reason, they would have no choice but to appoint him unilaterally.

Coincidentally, Chung was replaced as the president’s diplomatic and security advisor by the same conflicted ex-minister Kim Hyun-chong, formerly Deputy National Advisor of Blue House Directorate.

In the run-up to the appointment and in the first days of taking office, Chung made several statements reflecting his future course: the primary objective of South Korean diplomacy is to strengthen the alliance with the United States on a stronger and more mutually beneficial basis.

Building on this alliance, Chung intends to focus “diplomatic efforts on laying the groundwork for substantial progress in denuclearization efforts through an early resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the United States.” To this end, Chung is going to insist that Pyongyang participate in the Seoul-led initiative for regional cooperation in combating pandemics and other public health crises. Although the North said openly that inter-Korean cooperation in this area is of no interest to them.

As for Japan, amid lingering historical and trade disputes between Seoul and Tokyo, Chung called it “a close neighbor and cooperative partner in promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia”. But judging by the fact that in his previous post, Chung did not speak much in favor of reducing the nationalist frenzy, this is a routine formulation in which dialogue refers to Tokyo’s unconditional agreement with Seoul’s demands.

Speaking of US-China relations, Chung stressed that the two countries are important to Seoul as the key ally and trading partner, adding that South Korea can play a role in helping the two countries “build confidence” through cooperation in common areas such as climate change and combating pandemics.

As for the US-led regional security forum in the Indo-Pacific region known as the Quartet, Chung said Seoul is willing to participate in any form of regional cooperation initiative as long as it is transparent, open, inclusive and consistent with international norms.

According to the ROK media, the appointment “signifies Moon’s unwavering determination to revive the ‘peace process’ on the Korean Peninsula, which has stalled since the failure of the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019.” But what prevented it from being held even under the previous minister? There wasn’t much difference in positions between Chung and Kang.

In the author’s opinion, the change of the minister is analogous to a political party changing its name before the elections, as if cleaning itself of past mistakes and pretending to have carried out not only rebranding, but also reforms.

Through the efforts of Moon and Kang, ROK’s foreign policy is far from ideal, as Chung himself admits: “Our diplomacy finds itself in a difficult situation. We are at a moment when proactive and strategic diplomacy is needed as uncertainty in the international situation deepens“. But there is no new course in sight. All that we heard from the new minister, we also had heard from the old one.

Will it be possible to pull off such a stunt? As former North Korean diplomat and defector Tae-Yong Ho noted, days after President Moon urged the Biden administration to follow the Singapore Declaration at his New Year’s press conference, he appointed a person deeply involved in the preparations for the Singapore Summit as foreign minister and is trying to get Biden’s approval. But convincing the new president to continue Trump’s course may prove a challenge. As conservative newspapers point out, with the new administration planning a complete overhaul of the US approach to North Korea, Chung should consult closely with American officials (meaning, pursue a more pro-American course as Moon’s reign comes to an end).

We’ll see whether or not and to what extent the new minister will be more successful than the old one.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.