|Rep. Lee In-young of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
President Moon Jae-in is expected to reshuffle his security and diplomacy teams replacing their members with his close, pro-unification aides, according to political analysts, Wednesday. This is seen as a move to find a breakthrough in stalled relations with North Korea and push harder for inter-Korean projects.
Rep. Lee In-young, a former floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), is highly likely to be named the new unification minister, while Im Jong-seok, a former presidential chief of staff, is rumored to either take over as head of the spy agency or become the presidential national security adviser.
Given that Lee and Im, both of whom were former leaders of the now-defunct association of university student representatives, a pro-democracy and pro-unification student organization in the 1980s, their possible appointments are raising speculation that the Moon administration may adopt a harder drive for independent inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation with North Korea, separate from Pyongyang's halted denuclearization talks with Washington.
Cheong Wa Dae is said to have begun its personnel verification system to check if there is anything that could disqualify Lee.
The four-term lawmaker, 56, served on the 20th National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee and also headed the DPK's committee dealing with inter-Korean relations and unification. He gained recognition for his expertise in inter-Korean affairs, which makes him the right fit to fill the vacancy created by the sudden resignation of former Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul over the worsened inter-Korean ties. Lee has also been assigned to the same committee for the current 21st Assembly.
Along with a new unification minister, President Moon is expected to reshuffle his diplomatic and national security team, including the national security adviser and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) director. The team has been under fire for the current deadlock in inter-Korean relations, highlighted by the North's demolition of the South-North joint liaison office in Gaeseong last month.
Given that National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong has offered to resign, some speculate the spy agency chief Suh Hoon may replace him, paving the way for the former presidential chief of staff to land the NIS job. Or it is also anticipated that Im may replace Chung with Suh remaining in his current post.
Im, 54, is regarded as one of a few figures within the ruling side who has gained the North's confidence thanks to his track record.
He led the government's preparation for three inter-Korean summits between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during which he had opportunities to meet the North's leader and his sister Kim Yo-jong, who is currently burnishing her credentials as the No. 2 in the regime. Im heads the Foundation for Inter-Korea Cooperation, a private nonprofit organization, focusing on the unification of the two Koreas.
|Im Jong-seok / Korea Times file|
The speculated appointments are seen as President Moon's determination to improve bilateral relations between South and North Korea in the second half of his term.
"Their appointments will serve as a clear message that the government will seek to focus on inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation no matter how this clashes with the U.S. and its policy," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.
In a recent interview, Im urged the unification ministry to act aggressively to improve stalled inter-Korean relations without being cautious about the U.S. government's response. Washington has established the position that inter-Korean economic cooperation should proceed in step with significant progress in denuclearizing the North.
"Both Lee and Im are self-assertive and ideological politicians, so if they assume the positions, their priority will be inter-Korean ties over the South Korea-U.S. alliance. I guess they will first attempt to dismantle the South Korea-U.S. working group," Park added.
The working group, co-chaired by Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, and U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun, was set up in November 2018 to coordinate issues related to the North, but is now under siege for allegedly hampering progress in bilateral ties due to its excessively harsh standards adopted on the reclusive state.