Yoon administration’s self-undermining national security takes aim at inter-Korean summits

Posted on : 2022-07-18 17:13 KST Modified on : 2022-07-18 17:13 KST
Despite no demonstrably illegal behavior turning up, the current administration is rummaging through intelligence as part of its rush to vilify the North Korea policy of the Moon Jae-in administration
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un greets Chung Eui-yong, then-President Moon Jae-in’s national security advisor, on April 27, 2018. (Korea joint pool photo)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un greets Chung Eui-yong, then-President Moon Jae-in’s national security advisor, on April 27, 2018. (Korea joint pool photo)

Last Saturday, July 16, two stories appeared in the local news that made me look twice.

The administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has been rushing to vilify the North Korea policy of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, since the final results of the Coast Guard’s investigation into the killing of a civil servant in the Yellow Sea were released on June 16. But these latest stories showed that the Yoon administration is shifting its aim to the inter-Korean summits that Moon held in 2018.

First was a front-page article in the Dong-a Ilbo daily titled, “NIS probes ‘inter-Korean hotline’ between Suh Hoon and Kim Yong-chol.” Then there was the second story on KBS News 9 titled “NIS begins analyzing Panmunjom thumb drive to check for info on a ‘North Korean nuclear reactor.’” In both cases, the source was a “senior official in the government.”

Considering that an inter-Korean summit requires extremely difficult and delicate considerations of policy and politics by the South Korean president, there must be suitable grounds for taking issue with that process and digging up classified documents related to it. But the grounds for that are negligible.

According to the reports, Suh and Kim’s hotline is being probed because of the “possibility of inappropriate conversations or deals,” while the authorities are looking into whether “information about building a nuclear reactor in North Korea” appeared on the thumb drive containing a video about a new economic plan for the Korean Peninsula that Moon gave Kim Jong-un during their inter-Korean summit on April 27, 2018.

Neither of those probes was launched because demonstrably illegal behavior has turned up. Remember, this is the Moon administration we’re talking about — the same people who canceled a humanitarian shipment of Tamiflu, a flu drug, because of US’ sanctions, much to North Korea’s annoyance. And that was after three inter-Korean summits.

None of that is news to the Yoon administration, yet officials seem determined to find the needle, even if that means picking apart an entire field of haystacks.

The hotline between Suh Hoon and Kim Yong-chol was one link in a trilateral hotline that included Mike Pompeo, then director of the CIA. The hotline was activated at the end of 2017 between the heads of the three countries’ intelligence organizations: the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in South Korea, the United Front Department in North Korea, and the CIA in the US.

Those three officials acted as proxies for the leaders of the three countries (Moon, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump), helping to arrange three inter-Korean summits, two North Korea-US summits, and one trilateral meeting in 2018 and 2019. It was a truly winding road that led from fears of war on the Korean Peninsula in 2017 to the flurry of summit diplomacy between the three countries in 2018-2019.

We need to consider why the leaders of those three countries chose their intelligence chiefs, rather than their top diplomats, as proxies for secret negotiations. Intelligence agencies are responsible for preventing war through all available means, including covert operations, when diplomacy isn’t working.

That’s why countries around the world, including the US, afford their intelligence organizations more latitude for confidentiality than other government agencies, while still keeping them under the democratic control of the legislature.

That’s also true of South Korea’s National Assembly, where the Intelligence Committee, which supervises the work of the NIS, holds its meetings behind closed doors. Even the NIS’s budget is only disclosed on a limited basis, with the details redacted.

When former NIS Director Park Jie-won accuses the Yoon administration of “undermining national security by neutralizing an intelligence organization’s very reason for being,” that shouldn’t be written off as just an excuse by someone facing a criminal complaint.

Most of all, the Korean Peninsula in July 2022 is in a precarious political state. Not only has the North already abandoned its moratorium on nuclear testing and intercontinental ballistic missile test launches — a pledge it had been keeping to since April 2018 — but according to the South Korean presidential office, a seventh nuclear test is “only a decision by Kim Jong-un away.”

As the US-China battle for dominance drags on, along with the US-Russia “proxy war” in Ukraine, the very roots of the post-Cold War order are now in jeopardy. This is not a time to go rummaging through confidential inter-Korean summit documents, especially when the Yoon Suk-yeol administration hasn’t found any evidence of illegal activities.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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