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Resignations by Yoon's diplomatic aides weigh on US summit

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President Yoon Suk Yeol salutes the national flag during a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, Tuesday. On the right in back is former National Security Director Kim Sung-han. Joint Press Corps
President Yoon Suk Yeol salutes the national flag during a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, Tuesday. On the right in back is former National Security Director Kim Sung-han. Joint Press Corps

National security director resigns amid controversy

By Nam Hyun-woo

Concerns are growing over President Yoon Suk Yeol's state visit to the United States next month, as a number of his senior secretaries involved in foreign affairs, including the national security director, have resigned just one month before his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Experts say the resignations will not affect the overall theme of next month's state visit, which is to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance between the two countries and deepen their ties as reliable partners. However, this may slow the process of setting the summit agenda and erode the trust and respect that U.S. diplomatic officials have for their South Korean counterparts.

In a text message sent to reporters, Wednesday, National Security Director Kim Sung-han announced his resignation.

"When I was first offered this job from President Yoon, I told him that I would return to school after laying the ground for restoring the South Korea-U.S. alliance, improving South Korea-Japan ties and strengthening security cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo," Kim wrote.

"I believe the circumstances are ready, and the preparations for Yoon's scheduled state visit to the U.S. are on the right track, allowing my successor to serve the role without major setbacks."

Within less than an hour, the presidential office announced that Cho Tae-yong, Seoul's ambassador to the U.S., will replace Kim.

Prior to Kim's resignation, resignations were announced by protocol secretary Kim Il-bum on March 10 and foreign affairs secretary Lee Moon-hee on March 26.

The presidential office said the two secretaries left their posts due to "personal reasons," but their resignations stirred suspicions because the protocol secretary left the position just a week ahead of Yoon's summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and the foreign affairs secretary was replaced a month ahead of Yoon's state visit to Washington on April 26.

K-pop group BLACKPINK / Courtesy of YG Entertainment
K-pop group BLACKPINK / Courtesy of YG Entertainment

Multiple sources within and outside the presidential office suggested the resignations are the result of the mounting confusion between the office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while preparing for Yoon's recent diplomatic events.

According to sources, the U.S. proposed a joint performance of K-pop group BLACKPINK and American singer-songwriter Lady Gaga during Yoon's state visit, but this was not included in Seoul's reports to Yoon, which reportedly triggered the president to lose his temper with his diplomatic aides.

"This could not have been the sole reason for Yoon to decide to replace those secretaries," a ruling bloc official said. "There have been several rumors about confusion existing between the ministry and the presidential office, thus the president may opt to launch a shakeup of his diplomatic aides in the near future ahead of next year's general election, which may involve Foreign Minister Park Jin's departure from his post to run for the election."

Though the former national security adviser said he hopes the country's diplomacy and state affairs will not be affected by "controversies stemming from me," experts are saying this may give the U.S. a negative impression of South Korea's diplomatic capability.

"In terms of summit diplomacy, it is important to see whether the presidential office or the foreign ministry is leading the preparations, and it seems that the presidential office is spearheading that work in the Yoon administration," said Kim Joon-hyung, a professor at Handong Global University and former chancellor of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

"With a month left before the state visit, their replacement obviously will have an adverse impact on the summit."

According to Kim Joon-hyung, officials of the two countries are supposed to spend their busiest days preparing the agenda for the summit, including economic issues such as the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act and the chips act subsidy programs. The overall direction of the talks between Yoon and Biden will not be affected due to the replacement of some the diplomatic officials, but this can lead to complications as the U.S. officials will have to deal with new South Korean counterparts

"I don't think there will be any strategic problems, with the U.S. inviting Yoon for a state visit and Seoul giving a big present to Washington by mending ties with Japan," the professor said. "With key officials being replaced just ahead of the summit, however, this may make the U.S. officials lose respect for their counterparts in terms of expertise and trustworthiness."

Nam Hyun-woo


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