Foreign minister ‘invisible’ in inter-Korean affairs

The foreign ministry is losing ground in the decision-making process on the ongoing inter-Korean affairs, as it is failing to win support from President Moon Jae-in’s inner circle.

This comes at a critical time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is advised to play a bigger role as a peace facilitator with other countries. But National Security Office (NSO) chief Chung Eui-yong holds the key in driving and assessing all procedures relating to inter-Korean peace, with the foreign ministry being excluded from playing a part in the affairs.

Officials say the ministry will continue to be excluded until Minister Kang Kyung-wha can win support from Cheong Wa Dae and from the ministry’s inner circle.

“Officials from the foreign ministry have not been actively participating in meetings at Cheong Wa Dae regarding the denuclearization of North Korea and other North Korea issues. They have not been outspoken. Minister Kang should go through some leadership-related questions,” a Cheong Wa Dae source said, Sunday.

“The foreign ministry needs to deliver its voice to the house. But this has not been made possible, as Kang is winning little support from the presidential office.”

The inter-Korean peace process was initiated earlier this year when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to denuclearize his regime. President Moon also welcomed the drive, with relevant ministries going all-out to extend the rare momentum for possible lasting peace here.

But when it comes to inter-Korean affairs, the foreign ministry has failed to exert its influence, while Cheong Wa Dae drives inter-Korean policies.

The foreign ministry runs a special division, the Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, which handles issues regarding all things related to North Korea, including nuclear-related issues. However, the division has made little influence in major decision-making processes on inter-Korean affairs so far this year.

The outlook for the ministry’s possible rebound remains murky as the ministry has also been generating mixed performances in diplomacy with other countries, according to officials who are familiar with the matter.

In recent months, the foreign ministry also came under fire for failing to settle and effectively mediate a series of controversies with Japan and other countries.

Last month, the South’s Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay compensation for South Koreans forced to work at the company during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of the peninsula.

The ruling has since drawn strong backlash from the Japanese government, which called the decision a violation of international law. Japan’s foreign ministry argues that the court’s ruling is unacceptable, as the compensation issue was settled in 1965 when Seoul and Tokyo signed a treaty to restore their ties.

Seoul’s foreign ministry also expressed disappointment over the strong opposition from Japan.

With Seoul and Tokyo showing no signs of coming to terms on the recent decision, expectations are that the bilateral diplomatic tension will continue.

The growing friction between the two sides could negatively impact the South’s foreign ministry given its tangible diplomatic achievements, they said.

The impasse over negotiations for defense cost sharing between Seoul and Washington also has a negative effect on the foreign ministry.

The negotiations, which began in March, are aimed at deciding the South’s share of the financial burden next year for maintaining the 28,500 United States Forces Korea (USFK) troops here.

“But with U.S. President Donald Trump showing a strong desire to increase Seoul’s burden for the cost, the ministry has in recent months failed to come to terms with its U.S. counterpart over the negotiations,” said one source.

For four days from Dec. 11, Seoul and Washington held their final negotiations this year, but failed to reach a consensus in renewing the five-year agreement which expires at the end of this year.

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