[Editorial] Shocking resignation of Yoon administration’s foreign policy chief

Posted on : 2023-03-30 17:05 KST Modified on : 2023-03-30 17:05 KST
Given South Korea’s complex position in geopolitics, the abrupt resignation of Kim Sung-han only compounds uncertainties for Yoon’s foreign affairs and national security team
Kim Sung-han, the recently resigned director of the presidential office’s National Security Office, takes part in a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on March 28. (presidential office pool photo)
Kim Sung-han, the recently resigned director of the presidential office’s National Security Office, takes part in a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on March 28. (presidential office pool photo)

Known as the architect of Seoul’s foreign policy, Kim Sung-han stepped down from his post as director of the National Security Office on Wednesday ahead of a major diplomatic schedule that includes a South Korea-US summit and a G7 summit.

Coming after the presidential office’s protocol and foreign affairs secretaries were both replaced in the space of just two weeks earlier this month, Kim’s departure shows how irresponsible and shambolic the foreign affairs and national security team is right now.

Given the severe foreign affairs and national security environment that South Korea faces, the National Security Office director’s abrupt replacement only compounds the uncertainties for the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s foreign affairs and national security team.

It is also a case of the government undermining trust with a reversal that comes just a day after the presidential office official denied speculation on Kim’s replacement as being “unfounded.”

As the figure responsible for foreign affairs and national securities duties, Kim visited the US earlier this month to coordinate the schedule and agenda for Yoon’s planned visit in late April.

In announcing his resignation, he insisted, “The preparations [for Yoon’s visit as a guest of the state] are going well, and I think that whoever my successor is will be able to perform duties without issues.” This was irresponsible of him to say.

Before Kim’s replacement, Kim Il-bum stepped down as protocol secretary ahead of a South Korea-Japan summit and Lee Moon-hee was replaced as foreign affairs secretary. South Korean diplomacy is currently at a crucial crossroads: in addition to that summit with Japan, there are also Yoon’s upcoming visit to the US on April 26 and a planned G7 summit and trilateral summit with the US and Japan on May 11–13.

At a time when every ounce of energy is needed to fine-tune Seoul’s strategy, we have instead witnessed an unprecedented exodus of related officials. As the rumor mill continues to churn, no clear explanations are being given for these resignations either.

One of the factors behind Kim Sung-han’s resignation being mentioned is the friction that erupted during the coordination of Yoon’s US visit schedule. Apparently, Yoon raked him over the coals for omissions in reporting on the scheduling of a joint performance by the group Blackpink and the singer Lady Gaga.

This is surely not the only factor. The foreign affairs and national security team has been plagued with difficulties, including rampant speculation of discord between Kim Sung-han and Kim Tae-hyo — who was first deputy director of the NSO to Kim Sung-han’s director — and feuding between the presidential office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The protectionist policies of major powers and supply chain woes have been sending serious danger signals for South Korea’s export-driven economy. The US is insisting that companies building semiconductor production facilities there need to hand over sensitive core business secrets when applying for subsidies. North Korea is becoming more overt with its tactical nuclear weapon threats, including its disclosure of photographs of actual tactical nuclear warheads.

During the upcoming South Korea-US summit, the president faces the urgent tasks of having to find solutions to the semiconductor and battery issues and the North Korean nuclear crisis — matters on which South Korea’s very future hinges.

Ahead of matters of protocol and reporting, there are deepening questions about what sort of preparations are taking place. Under the circumstances, the president should give the public a full explanation of the mess that the foreign affairs and national security lineup is in and ask for their understanding.

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

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