South Korea has a new Minister of Unification (MOU), or soon will have. President Park Geun-hye, whose ratings have fallen to 29 percent this year, carried out a mini-reshuffle last week.
Picking personnel isn’t Park’s strong suit. Last year she failed to replace her prime minister, after two nominees withdrew rather than confront challenges about their ethics or suitability.
She succeeded this time, but at a price. On February 15 the National Assembly confirmed Lee Wan-koo, former floor leader of Park’s ruling conservative Saenuri Party, as the new premier despite a host of ethical doubts. Lee was even recorded bragging that he could get bad media coverage taken down, and secure university jobs for favored journalists. A paragon of virtue!
Four other portfolios changed hands, most involving transport or the economy. There are new ministers of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) and of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF, a new ministry created by Park Geun-hye in 2013). The Financial Services Commission also gets a fresh chairman. And, a new unification minister. Spot the odd one out.
Before we get to the man, let’s consider the job. The MOU started life in 1969 under the dictator Park Chung-hee as the National Unification Board (NUB). Mainly a research body at first, over time its role grew to include policymaking. In 1991 it became a full ministry, in charge of relations with North Korea. The MOU’s website offers an indication of its current activities.
Given how central the peninsula’s division and the North Korean threat are to policymaking in Seoul, you might think the MOU would be a key player. In fact the logic goes the other way.
TURF WARS OVER THE NORTH
Precisely because the North is so crucial, the MOU competes with other powerful bureaucracies who reckon this is their territory
Precisely because the North is so crucial, the MOU competes with other powerful bureaucracies who reckon this is their territory. Three stand out: the Foreign Ministry (MOFA), Defense (MND) and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Almost always, and despite a period in 1990-98 when the unification minister doubled as deputy premier, the MOU has tended to be the poor relation: taking a back seat compared to the mighty troika of Foreign/Defense/Intel.
Indeed, in 2008 the MOU came close to being abolished. The then-new President Lee Myung-bak, predecessor of the incumbent Park Geun-hye, was keen to move away from NK-centeredness and have South Korea cut a bigger dash on the wider global stage. On the latter front he was rather successful, for instance in taking a prominent role in founding and hosting the G-20.
As Lee saw it, North Korea was just another foreign country – and a tiresome one to boot. No way did it deserve its own ministry, which he planned to fold into MOFA. But Lee lacked a majority in the National Assembly, where the liberal opposition – whose decade of “Sunshine” engagement with the North Lee was also about to bring to an end – opposed abolition. So the MOU survived but was significantly downsized, losing several of its divisions and functions.
How much clout the MOU wields also depends on two other factors: the caliber of the particular minister, and what importance the president of the day attaches to the Northern question. A few unification ministers have been serious heavyweights. Lee Hong-koo (1988-90) became prime minister, while Chung Dong-young (2004-05) was the liberal presidential candidate whom Lee Myung-bak defeated (by a mile) in 2007. Those are the exceptions. Some others have done a decent job, but – to be honest – quite a few down the years have been faceless worthies, or mere placemen, who made little impact and hardly anyone now remembers.
CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH?
That is much too harsh a verdict on outgoing minister Ryoo Kihl-jae. An academic credited with crafting Park’s “Trustpolitik,” once interestingly described as “a right-leaning scholar at a left-leaning university” – Kyungnam University’s Graduate School of North Korean Studies – Ryoo is indubitably a North Korea expert, who had given years of thought and study to the problems which for the past two years he has had to deal with on a practical policy level.
From theory to practice is a big leap. If little moved forward on Ryoo’s watch, that may not be his fault. This isn’t the place to rehearse again all the puzzles, contradictions and missteps that have characterized North Korea policy under Park Geun-hye. Nor do I know how much power Ryoo actually wielded, ergo how far he personally is responsible for the stasis we see.
My hunch is that Ryoo might have wanted to dare more – but the military establishment had Park’s ear, so no creative risks got taken. Maybe Ryoo will spill the beans once he returns to academe.
Ryoo’s successor seems cast from a similar mould, but younger (he is 51). Hong Yong-pyo is also an academic specialist – his DPhil thesis, as Oxford calls the PhD, examined Syngman Rhee’s unification policy in the 1950s – who has advised Park Geun-hye. Indeed, Hong was already serving her in the Blue House as senior presidential secretary for unification. So he is a known quantity to the president, if a somewhat unknown one to the South Korean public.
BLUE TRUMPS ALL
This is a complex power structure, and a crowded one
Back to the job as such for a moment. As already noted, within the ROK government North Korea is a bone fought over by four different ministries or similar: The MOU, MOFA, MND and NIS. Actually, make that five – for the Blue House is yet another player. Senior presidential secretaries often in practice wield as much power as Cabinet ministers, and may rival them.
This is a complex power structure, and a crowded one. We often grumble how difficult it is to fathom who are the real power holders in Pyongyang, but to a degree the same is true in Seoul – which in turn flummoxes the North. In a revealing moment, a year ago when the two sides were briefly talking, the North reportedly demanded that the Southern delegation be led not by the unification minister, as always in the past, but from the Blue House. They got their way. This tells us a lot about who really makes the running on the North in Seoul currently.
So what difference will Hong Yong-pyo make, assuming he is confirmed in his new post? In a bizarre rule, all ministers must undergo confirmation hearings before the National Assembly – but the president is free to ignore parliament’s disapproval, except in the case of the prime minister. Hong should have a fairly easy ride. The worst the dirt-diggers have managed to pin on him is one instance of self-plagiarism: hardly a mortal sin, especially in Korea.
There are two reasons to doubt if Minister Hong will make big waves. Relatively young and new to government, he may be no match for the big guns in the foreign ministry and security establishment – even if he were minded to challenge them, which leads to the second reason.
Hong is already integral to Team Park, helping to craft its stance on North Korea. According to the Yonhap News Agency, he “is widely known to have played a key role in formulating Park’s major policies on unification affairs, including her pitch for national unification as a ‘bonanza’ as well as her unification vision declared in Dresden, Germany, last year.”
So those of us who find the whole unification-as-bonanza concept a bit bonkers now know who to blame. Dresden was more a curate’s egg: good in parts, but as with Park’s Nordpolitik overall it is hard to fathom just how the different components are supposed to hang together.
I write on the second anniversary of Park Geun-hye’s accession to office. She has three years left to serve. Hong Yong-pyo will do better than most if he keeps his job for the duration. Perhaps the ticking countdown will impel president or minister to rethink their stance and try something new. But with the North’s Sudpolitik going nowhere too, it’s hard to be optimistic.
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Featured Image: Korea_President_Park_KPOP_cONCERT_20130628_09 by KOREA.NET - Official page of the Republic of Korea on 2013-06-28 20:46:31