|Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the National Security Office (NSO), speaks during a briefing on the Revised Missile Guidelines negotiations with Washington at Cheong Wa Dae's press center, July 28. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
Aside from President Moon Jae-in, one of the biggest newsmakers at Cheong Wa Dae is Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the National Security Office (NSO).
Because of the secretive nature of his work, he rarely appears in Cheong Wa Dae's press center. So whenever he shows up at a briefing, reporters who cover presidential politics know instinctively that something serious is about to happen.
The presidential office announced that Kim would be giving a briefing only 17 minutes before it took place at 2 p.m., July 28, without disclosing the topic in advance. Lately the briefing center has been quite sparse compared to a year ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the briefing notice was made, the center filled up once again.
There had been some rumors that Kim would be making a big announcement this month and his latest briefing contained some exciting news. After nine months of negotiations following President Moon Jae-in's order, Kim announced the revised missile guidelines agreement with Washington which will ease the decades-long restrictions that have limited Korea's military and space potential.
The Revised Missile Guidelines (RMG) will enable Korea to develop solid-fuel space vehicles and launch military spy satellites, which are expected to significantly increase Korea's Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, something the country has lacked in comparison to other neighboring powers such as Japan and China.
"We are strengthening our security capabilities further and at the same time establishing and faithfully implementing security strategies that can help our national economy," Kim said at the briefing, July 28.
Striking the pact with Washington is considered a major win for the NSO, which the opposition has dragged over the coals over a lack of visible achievements on any of the big security and diplomatic issues.
Kim hinted that Korea will continue to negotiate with the U.S. with the aim to recover Korea's "missile sovereignty," which is something President Moon highlighted in a statement after the revised guidelines were announced.
It was the first time for the two-time former trade minister to appear at an official briefing at Cheong Wa Dae since a series of briefings last year in July and August on Seoul's response to a bilateral dispute with Japan.
This time, reporters were particularly curious about the possibility of future negotiations with Washington for extending the range limit of 800 kilometers imposed on Korean ballistic missiles, which remains in place despite the latest revision.
"If it is necessary for national security, I would like to say that we can discuss the 800-kilometer limit any time with the U.S.," Kim said. "The issue of easing the 800-kilometer restriction will be resolved in due time."
According to his tweet, he met with Robert B. Abrams, commander of the United States Forces Korea (USFK) on July 31. "After the revision of the Korea-U.S. missile guidelines, we shared our views on how to strengthen the alliance and the recent situation on the Korean Peninsula. There is still a lot to do in the future."
Other than the missile issue, it is expected that the immediate focus of the NSO second deputy director will be on the Korea-Japan row over a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed at the U.S. initiative in 2016.
In November 2019, Korea reversed its decision of a few months earlier to scrap the bilateral pact, saying it would postpone its expiry while the two countries sort out their trade dispute, which erupted after Japan's removal of Korea from its "whitelist" of trusted trading partners in August 2019.
All eyes will be on what kind of decision Seoul will make regarding GSOMIA ahead of the deadline for the pact's expiration on Aug. 23. "I will continue to review this issue and will try to come to a good decision," Kim said before closing the briefing on RMG negotiations.
Entering his third year in office in May, Moon responded to the increasing pressure to reshuffle his diplomatic and national security team and appointed former National Intelligence Service (NIS) head Suh Hoon as the new chief of the NSO last month. In addition, Moon replaced first NSO deputy director Kim You-geun with former vice defense minister Suh Choo-suk, but chose to retain Kim.
|President Moon Jae-in, right, arrives at the Mekong-ROK summit in Busan on Nov. 27, 2019, with NSO second deputy director Kim Hyun-chong, second from right, and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, left. Korea Times file|
One of the biggest questions that has consistently revolved around Kim is how much longer he will remain at Cheong Wa Dae. He is already considered one of the longest-serving members among the senior presidential aides.
He joined the NSO in February 2019 after serving as Moon's first trade minister from July 2017 until his current appointment. There were some media reports that he could leave ahead of the general election earlier this year and was considered a heavy favorite as Korea's candidate for the World Trade Organization (WTO) chief, given his previous experience with the WTO as well as his service as trade minister for two administrations. But Seoul ultimately chose Yoo Myung-hee, Kim's successor at the trade ministry, to run for Korea's third bid for the top position at the global trade body.
Speculations remain about the possibility of his appointment as the country's top foreign policymaker.
Moon is said to have a special trust for his first and current Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who has done a particularly good job in disseminating Korea's effective response to the pandemic. However, calls have been rising for an additional reshuffle of the foreign ministry.
If Moon were looking to replace the foreign minister, few would seem to be a better pick than Kim at the moment, with his wealth of experience in dealing with some of Korea's toughest challenges in trade, diplomacy and national security.
In particular, he has the upper hand compared with possible contenders in dealing with the U.S., Korea's most important ally, with his past experience as the former Korean representative for the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), in addition to spearheading a wide range of negotiations for Korea under the Moon administration, such as the RMG.
Concerns have been rising about weakening of the alliance under the Moon administration due to their differences on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) for determining Korea's share of the costs for maintaining the USFK, as well as the rift with Washington on easing sanctions on North Korea and GSOMIA, which the U.S. sees as a critical tool for trilateral security cooperation.
Kim is known as an aggressive negotiator, but has made a point of underlining his special focus on strengthening the alliance almost every time he showed up at the Cheong Wa Dae briefing center.
Kim stressed the missile guidelines revision would serve to "upgrade, fortify and enhance" the 67-year-old Korea-U.S. alliance.
"In light of the current trends in international politics, the Korean government will deal with diplomatic challenges at hand in a comprehensive manner in order to enhance our strategic position," Kim said during a briefing on Aug. 28, 2019 after Seoul's GSOMIA decision. "This foreign and security policy will contribute to the expansion of our role in terms of security that the United States is expecting of us, and it will enable us to elevate the Korea-U.S alliance a further notch."