July 8, 2020 | Policy Brief

New South Korean National Security Team Has Close Ties to Pyongyang

July 8, 2020 | Policy Brief

New South Korean National Security Team Has Close Ties to Pyongyang

South Korean President Moon Jae-in put in place a new national security team last week that is composed of figures known for their close ties to North Korean officials. The composition of the team indicates that Moon plans to double down on his “Peace Strategy” and will attempt to engage Pyongyang regardless of the U.S. position.

Moon’s personnel changes include a new minister of unification, a new head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), a new national security adviser, and a new special adviser for security and diplomacy. Minister of Unification Lee In-young was a student activist affiliated with the pro-North Korean National Liberation Jusapa in the 1980s. Today, “Jusapa” is a pejorative term used by conservatives to criticize those affiliated with the student movements of the past. Lee served until late May as the floor leader of Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea and led its efforts to develop intra-Korean relations.

The new head of the NIS is legislator Park Jie-won, a surprise pick given that he is 78 years old and not a member of Moon’s ruling party. Park was instrumental as a senior official in supporting former President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” and illicitly funneled $450 million to the North ahead of Kim’s 2000 summit with Kim Jong Il. Park received a three-year sentence for his actions following his conviction by a South Korean court.

The previous head of the NIS, Suh Hoon, became Moon’s new national security adviser. Lim Jeong-seok, Moon’s former chief of staff and a former Jusapa-affiliated student activist, now serves as a special advisor for diplomacy and security along with the outgoing national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong. Lim also served three and a half years in prison for violating South Korea’s National Security Law in 1989 by arranging another activist’s unauthorized visit to the North.

This new team is likely to create tension between Seoul and Washington with regard to sanctions, policy coordination, and intelligence. First, while the United States supports intra-Korean engagement activities, it is imperative that such engagement does not come at the expense of sanctions. Seoul wants to force a diplomatic breakthrough at all costs; given Park’s and Lee’s histories, this could lead to a policy of rewarding the North simply for coming to the table, possibly in direct contravention of sanctions.

Second, Lee is not in favor of the strategy working group that Seoul and Washington established in 2018. The working group is an important mechanism for synchronizing policy and strategy, but South Korean critics wrongly believe its purpose is to restrain Moon’s policies. Lee said he intends to review the working group and spur intra-Korean relations based on his own ideas. His remarks subtly echo the North’s criticism of the working group as an example of the South’s “deep-rooted flunkeyism.”

Finally, given Park’s close relationship with the North, the U.S. intelligence community will likely be wary of providing certain intelligence to the NIS, out of concern it may be shared with Pyongyang. Intelligence liaison will not stop, but it will be executed with great caution, which will undermine the decades of trust between the South Korean and U.S. intelligence services.

The South Korean president is determined to engage Kim Jong Un. This is consistent with U.S. policy as long as it does not weaken or violate the sanctions regime. To overcome potential friction with Moon’s new appointees, the United States is likely to draw on its relationships with officials such as Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Special Representative Lee Do-hoon, who support an alliance-based approach to the North. Skilled diplomacy will be essential to managing relations with Seoul. Neither side can afford to forget that the ROK-U.S. alliance is indispensable and the linchpin of the preservation of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy