|Presidential National Security Office (NSO) chief Chung Eui-yong, right, talks with the office's second deputy Kim Hyun-chong at the start of an event held in Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 28. Yonhap|
Cheong Wa Dae mulls replacing top security lineup
By Kim Yoo-chul
As inter-Korean relations have grown frosty, Cheong Wa Dae is considering reshuffling the presidential National Security Office (NSO).
Officials at the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and former presidential aides told The Korea Times Monday that Cheong Wa Dae was "on track" to complete "some reshuffling" of the NSO by the end of this year with NSO chief Chung Eui-yong and other presidential aides at the top security office being put on the possible replacement list.
The key rationale is that President Moon, his administration and the ruling DPK are asked to save the party from possible defeat in the elections next April. Since Moon took power in 2017, the former human rights lawyer has been vigorously pushing his "engagement-centric" North Korea policies by intentionally downplaying the significance of the North's repeated missile provocations and highlighting the possible benefits of talks with the North.
While South Korean conservatives accuse President Moon and his administration of being "too accommodating" to the North and placing South Korea's national security at risk, the President has defended his NSO team led by Chung so far.
"But the general consensus is that the NSO, the control tower in strategizing on North Korea, needs new faces ahead of the crucial April general election," one former presidential aide said over the phone. "Chung did a creditable job of articulating various ideas of advancing inter-Korean relations and facilitating previous inter-Korean summits. But because President Moon's efforts to engage the North have been stalled with Pyongyang refusing to meet and restarting ballistic missile tests, the NSO needs to be revamped."
Chung is known to have brokered two previous inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits as a special envoy. He was the key player in outlining the joint declaration when President Moon met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang in September 2018. He was a supporter of the "Yongbyon plus alpha" deal with North Korea, which means the dismantlement of the North's Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for economic concessions from the United States.
But Washington has yet to offer even limited sanctions relief to the cash-strapped North, with Pyongyang refusing to present specific and comprehensive denuclearization steps. Recently, nuclear negotiators of Washington and Pyongyang met in Stockholm, Sweden. But their talks failed to produce any agreements.
The former presidential aide added it was unlikely the presidential national security adviser and the NSO's second deputy Kim Hyun-chong will be replaced, until there is resolution to Seoul's uphill battle with Washington over the issue of defense cost-sharing and the ongoing diplomatic friction with Japan. Since the very beginning, Kim has been at the forefront of the Japan issue.
"As defense cost-sharing with the United States has become an economic issue, the NSO would need its deputy Kim to stay on the job. Considering Kim's extensive network in Washington and aggressive style, President Moon is unlikely to replace him. The trade friction with Washington and defense issues are something that need to be assessed from an economic standpoint," one DPK official said on condition of anonymity.
It remains to be seen whether the possible changes to the NSO would provide a fresh impetus for the Moon administration, they said. The President is facing growing challenges to prevent the ruling DPK from falling in next April's general election.
"The widening polarization of the public is burdening Moon, whose term just entered into its second half. Because inter-Korean diplomacy is something the Moon administration can handle well, seeing visible progress in the South's developments with the North is important as that could save the Moon administration from becoming a lame duck," said Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership, a Seoul-based think-tank.
President Moon's support rate from Nov. 25 to 29 remained at 47.6 percent, an addition of 0.7 percentage points from the previous week, while 48.3 percent of respondents were negative of the President's performance in state affairs, according to a weekly poll conducted by Realmeter with 2,506 adults nationwide.
The local pollster said the increases of Moon's job performance approval were mostly attributable to the rather "positive aspects" of last week's summit with ASEAN leaders held in Busan.