|NSO second deputy director Kim Hyun-chong's push for national interest is clashing with the U.S. Korea Times photo by Ryu Hyo-jin|
By Do Je-hae
With the expiration of a military-intelligence sharing pact between Seoul and Tokyo only days away, the U.S. is intensifying its pressure on South Korea to maintain the agreement for security cooperation.
More Koreans are concerned Cheong Wa Dae's August announcement of its intention to end the General Security of Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in response to Japan's July trade restrictions has resulted in a rift in the Korea-U.S. alliance. Such concerns have triggered debates about Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the presidential National Security Office (NSO), and his brand of diplomacy.
Kim has been President Moon Jae-in's key messenger in relations with the U.S. and Japan since the beginning of the "trade war" with Japan. The former WTO lawyer and chief of Samsung's legal affairs team, who was educated mostly in the U.S., is well-known for his distinct and very candid style which sets him apart from traditionally-trained bureaucratic diplomats that have relied deeply on the U.S. and have been reluctant to defy Korea's most important ally.
During a ceremony held in March before leaving his post as trade minister, Kim urged trade ministry officials to "fight patriotically for the national interest and not make any concessions."
Kim is a rare breed of Korean diplomat who isn't afraid to speak out even on sensitive issues, especially when he thinks national interests are at stake. After Cheong Wa Dae announced its intention to terminate the GSOMIA, Kim said, "We are seeing a growing trend of each country fending for itself to maximize its own national interest. This is the reality, and we have to create diplomatic room to advance our national interest based on this reality."
This may have worked well during his days as Korea's chief negotiator during the Korea-U.S. FTA negotiations during the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration. But some questions are rising that his consistent push for self-reliance and independence in South Korea's diplomacy and defense may not be the most effective or timely strategy at this point.
Kim will have a harder time in addressing such questions if South Korea-U.S. relations are faced with new tests after Seoul ultimately nullifies the GSOMIA. Chances are high the agreement will be allowed to expire as President Moon clarified his administration doesn't have a plan to reverse course with no overturn of the Japanese retaliatory trade decision.
Perceptions vs. reality
Kim has delivered public messages at Cheong Wa Dae at major junctures in the Korea-Japan row since Tokyo slapped trade restrictions on Seoul.
"The decision to end the GSOMIA was made in accordance with national interest after much consideration and review. If we step up our security capabilities in a confident and proactive manner, it will also meet the U.S. desire for its ally to increase their security contributions, which will eventually lead to the strengthening of the ROK-U.S. alliance," Kim said during a briefing at Cheong Wa Dae on Aug. 23.
But the reality since the decision was made in August is quite different from Kim's perceptions. With growing discontent from Washington against Seoul's GSOMIA decision, Kim finds himself at the center of criticism for allegedly harming the Seoul-Washington alliance. Many Koreans are doubting whether the decision really serves Korea's "national interest" when it has seemingly ended up hampering Washington's trust in Seoul.
Some experts within and outside South Korea are criticizing Seoul for moving the row with Japan beyond an economic problem to a security one as well.
"This policy shocked many people ― in the American view, the government of South Korea appears to be allowing domestic politics to triumph over important national security interests. The fact that the South Korean people, or their government, apparently don't regard these as important interests sends a pretty striking signal ― that is, maybe our interests aren't as shared as we had thought. If our interests are starting to diverge, this leads to questions about the future of our alliance," said Jennifer Lind, professor at Dartmouth University.