The right-hand man to South Korea’s new president is a former pro-democracy activist who spent more than three years in prison for organising an unauthorised trip to the North. On his first day in office, Moon Jae-In named Im Jong-Seok to be his chief of staff, the second most powerful position in a political system which concentrates authority in the president. I’m, a 51-year-old former two-term lawmaker with the Democratic Party, was a prominent student activist in the 1980s and, like Moon, protested against military rule. Outspoken and charismatic, I have long been dogged by accusations he is a North Korea sympathiser. He was convicted in 1989 for organising a rare, high-profile trip to Pyongyang by a female activist to take part in a youth festival.
The two Koreas remain technically at war and under South Korean law its citizens need government permission to go to the North. Even though he did not go to Pyongyang himself, Im was convicted and jailed over the trip. He eventually entered politics in 2000 as a lawmaker for the Democratic Party and was later a deputy mayor of Seoul. Im vowed to create an “open” office compared to the secrecy that surrounded it under ousted leader Park Geun-Hye, and told reporters: “I will serve Moon with all my heart, but will not become a yes man.” Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party angrily protested at his nomination. “We can’t help expressing regret over the nomination,” it said in a statement, warning that it would further deepen concerns over Moon’s stance on North Korea.