South Korea's soon to be new foreign minister Chung Eui-yong with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a 2018 file photo. Image: Twitter

SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday named Chung Eui-yong, a key player behind recent North Korean-US summits, as his new foreign minister only hours before the Joe Biden administration took office.

In a cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, Moon tapped Chung as foreign minister nominee. That means incumbent Kang Kyung-hwa will be put out to pasture after Chung’s hearing at the National Assembly, where Moon’s Democratic Party holds an absolute majority.

The appointment suggests Moon may want to see Biden resume the North Korean-US summits pioneered by outgoing President Donald Trump, with Seoul playing the intermediary role.

In March 2018, then-National Security Advisor Chung shuttled from Pyongyang to Washington carrying the message that Kim Jong Un was willing to denuclearize. That message flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which was that Kim would never surrender his full nuclear arsenal.

On March 9 that year, Chung met with Trump and senior advisors at the White House. Directly after the meeting Chung, flanked by two South Korean colleagues – Seoul’s chief spook and its ambassador to the US – briefed reporters on the White House lawn on a stunning breakthrough: President Trump would meet Kim Jong Un.

Highly unusually, no US officials joined that briefing. However, the historic summit did, indeed, go ahead in Singapore in June 2018, with a sitting US president and a sitting North Korean leader meeting for the first time.

Its outcome was an aspirational document that provided a broad roadmap for bilateral relations, for the building of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and for the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. But it lacked details of commitments, timing and tasks.

A second summit, in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019 failed to put flesh on the bones of the Singapore agreement after Trump walked out.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with the South Korean president’s special envoy Chung Eui-yong in Pyongyang in 2018. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

Matchmaker role

Pyongyang-Washington relations have gone nowhere since, dashing the hopes of optimists who thought the unprecedented summits might bear fruit while fortifying the cynics who maintained that North Korea would never disarm. As a direct result, inter-Korean relations have been at a standstill.

Local experts were downbeat in their retroactive assessments.

“Regarding the North Korea issue, South Korea probably thought the role was as a matchmaker [between Washington and Pyongyang],” Lim Eun-jung, a foreign policy expert at Kongju National University, told Asia Times. “As a messenger, we did a great job – but so what?”

One former high-ranking US official was particularly scathing.

Chung would feature heavily in the tell-all book by Trump’s dismissed National Security Advisor John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened. In it, Bolton disparaged the South Koreans’ intermediary activities and accused them of either being taken in by Kim’s protestations or good faith, or deliberately lying about them.

Chung returned fire, saying Bolton’s account was “distorted” and argued that the work was opinion rather than fact. Some on the South Korean left slammed Bolton, a noted Washington hawk, accusing him of intentionally sabotaging the Hanoi summit.

It remains to be seen whether Biden will follow Trump’s lead in meeting Kim, or more likely entrust negotiations to an expert team. Either way, the positions of both parties are relatively clear. 

The broad question is whether the Biden administration would waive some sanctions in return for a limited denuclearization by Pyongyang. The Trump administration had demanded full denuclearization before offering any rewards – a demand Kim was unwilling to meet.

Seoul, meanwhile, is keen to get a process started in order to build trust and momentum, while enabling a thaw in deep-frozen inter-Korean engagement – all moves that may be behind Chung’s appointment.  

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands in the first-ever meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader, in Singapore in 2018. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

The wrong approach?

“He brewed the Kool-Aid that was successful with Trump, so I guess he has been put in charge to try and do that again,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert with Troy University.

“But I think the underlying national interests are more grounded than the personalities, and when I look at those fundamentals … I am skeptical of any kind of breakthrough.”

Some believe Chung’s appointment was a bad move, given the criticism that has mounted against the Kim-Trump summits.

“There is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the whole approach was wrong. I have not heard anyone say that this top-down approach was the way to go, other than those who were involved in it,” said James Kim of the Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute.

“So you want to try to win the trust of a new administration with the official who was largely responsible for triggering this?” 

Still, Chung’s expertise extends beyond North Korean affairs.

He is currently Special Advisor to Moon on Foreign Affairs Diplomacy and National Security, an expansion of his prior role as National Security Advisor. Before that, he served a term as a National Assemblyman.

In his diplomatic career, he has acted as South Korean ambassador to the UN Secretariat in Geneva, as South Korean ambassador to Israel and as deputy ambassador to the United States.

Kang, the outgoing foreign minister, was the highest profile female on Moon’s team.

A radio producer, academic and woman’s rights activist before entering the foreign service, she served under three secretaries-general of the UN in human-rights related roles before taking on the ministerial portfolio.

Outgoing South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa is said to be sharp and articulate. Photo: AFP/Chris Jung/NurPhoto

‘The Spokesperson’

She had a rough parliamentary confirmation hearing, where she was accused of lacking experience. She would subsequently suffer from guilt by association when her husband, in the midst of 2020’s Covid-19 crisis, flew to the US to purchase a yacht.

Unlike most South Korean women her age, and also unlike most South Korean politicians, Kang famously eschewed hair dye and sported a personable upbeat style.

During her tenure, marked by Trump’s unconventional international behavior, sensitive relations with both the US and China were maintained on a reasonably even keel. But relations with Japan plummeted to their lowest point since diplomatic relations were established in 1965.

Kang was not believed to be inside Moon’s close circle – indeed, the president had never met her before her conferment ceremony – and she was unkindly nicknamed “The Spokesperson” in some circles.

“Kang is very sharp and articulate and photogenic, but I think she was probably more popular abroad in multilateral settings,” said Pinkston. “As an actor navigating the politics of South Korea and the bigger strategic agenda in the Blue House, she was probably weaker.”

One result of this intra-administration power-broking may have been a reduction in the decision-making role of the Foreign Ministry under Kang.

“I question the fit there, I question if she was the right person for the job,” said Asan’s Kim. “I think MOFA is not the ministry it was before her tenure, I think the elite bureaucrats within the ministry are not in high spirits, I think a lot of folks there are disappointed.”