Kim Jong Un isn’t giving South Korea’s new leader much room to try out a softer approach toward his regime. North Korea fired off another medium-range ballistic missile on Sunday, the country’s eighth test this year and second since Moon Jae-in won South Korea’s presidential election on May 9. President Donald Trump has vowed to stop North Korea’s push for a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to North America, by force if necessary.
Moon campaigned on a policy of engagement with North Korea, changing tack from the hardline approach under nine years of conservative rule. He’s already sought to mend ties with China — North Korea’s main ally and benefactor — and appointed key aides that have experience reaching out to Kim’s regime.
In 2007, as chief of staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon helped arrange a meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Moon has repeatedly said that talks now would only be possible once the country changes its attitude.
Since Moon’s election, Kim has shown scant evidence of complying with that condition. The North Korean leader supervised the latest launch personally, setting “forth the strategic tasks for bolstering up the country’s nuclear force,” according to the state-controlled news agency KCNA. The test improved the credibility of North Korea’s missile technology, said South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon.
Still, Moon’s picks for chief of staff, national security adviser and spy agency chief indicate he will engage with Kim’s regime in the long run, according to Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
“Moon’s appointments herald a clear shift in dealing with North Korea,” Kim said. “There can be acceleration and deceleration with the pursuit of a dialogue, but in the broader picture, we’re headed for reconciliation, exchanges and conversation.”
Here are introductions to Moon’s key appointments, and possible candidates for unification minister — a position that involves forming policies related to North Korea.
Im Jong-seok, Chief of Staff
Im, 51, became a household name in his early 20s when he headed a leftist student group that demanded peaceful unification of the peninsula. In defiance of the national security law, he sent a colleague, Lim Soo-kyung, to Pyongyang to attend a festival. She shocked South Koreans by meeting with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
Im eluded authorities for almost a year, despite offers of rewards for information on his whereabouts. Rumors were rife — and later denied by Im — that he disguised himself as a woman to avoid capture. He was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to a five-year prison term before being released after more than three years.
He later became a two-term lawmaker and Seoul’s deputy mayor before joining Moon’s election campaign. Explaining the reason for his pick, Moon said through a spokesman that Im’s experiences and philosophy “would properly support the president’s will to improve South-North relations.”
Chung Eui-yong, National Security Council Head
Chung, a former ambassador in Geneva, leads a special task force on diplomacy and foreign affairs. This month he met with Trump’s envoy, National Security Council Senior Director Matt Pottinger, and is organizing a summit between the U.S. and South Korean leaders for late June.
In an op-ed to rebut a Wall Street Journal column that Trump and Moon could collide on North Korea issues, Chung said both administrations mix pressure and dialogue in their approaches to the regime. There is “ample room for the U.S. and South Korea to calibrate and plan their joint engagement with the North,” he wrote.
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Chung will preside over an enlarged council, after Moon doubled its size to 43 members to give it more power to oversee inter-Korea relations, diplomacy and national defense. Chung has said a U.S. missile shield deployed in South Korea earlier this year “lacks procedural legitimacy” while declining to say whether it should be removed.
Suh Hoon, National Intelligence Service Chief
Suh, 63, was deeply involved in the coordination and negotiation of the previous two inter-Korea summits during his 28-year stint at the spy agency, where he most recently led the North Korea intelligence division.
The president believes Suh is the best person to guide the agency to “resolve the North’s nuclear issues and bring stability and peace to the Korean Peninsula,” Moon’s spokesman said.
Yang Moo-jin, Unification Minister Candidate
Yang, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, was a key campaign adviser to Moon on unification policies. He visited North Korea as part of the government’s delegation at a June 2000 summit.
In a guest contribution this month to a government-run website that explains policies, Yang, 57, said the recovery of ties should start by re-opening a hotline between the countries at the border village of Panmunjom. A test run of the hotline, which was cut off by North Korea last year, could lead to a “working-level contact and even to senior-level talks,” according to Yang.
Song Young-gil, Unification Minister Candidate
Song worked as an automobile welder and taxi driver before becoming a lawyer and a four-time lawmaker. He has criticized the former government’s decision to close a joint industrial park near the border. According to Song, the shutdown isn’t hurting Kim’s regime because it only generates about 0.3 percent of North Korea’s estimated gross domestic product.