Dissension within the new government’s national security team is deplorable.
The presidential office said recently that it gave a stern warning to Defense Minister Song Young-moo over his criticism of Special Presidential Adviser on National Security Moon Chung-in.
It amounted to a public rebuke of the minister.
It cited that Song had made an “inappropriate” expression and that he had created policy confusion.
The inappropriate remarks he made about Moon in the National Assembly on Tuesday were: “It’s my impression that he prattled from the point of view of a scholar”; “It is deplorable that he does not seem to talk like a special adviser on security”; and “He is a freewheeling person so I think I cannot keep company with him.”
Of course, these comments are undignified for a Cabinet member to say before lawmakers.
But the reason he made such remarks needs to be addressed.
Before these remarks, Moon criticized Song in an interview with a national news outlet. Moon slammed Song’s earlier remark that the ministry plans to form a special unit to carry out “decapitation operations” against North Korea’s military command. Moon raised an issue with the wording, saying Song must know that refined words can ease military tension with the North.
Song’s criticism of Moon is fundamentally a sign showing the military feels ill at ease with Moon’s emphasis on appeasement toward the North despite its escalating provocations. Moon is widely known as an advocate of the Sunshine Policy, which pursues dialogue and engagement with the North.
The presidential office’s warning does not seem right.
The term, “decapitate,” may be direct, but the view that even the military must avoid offending the North regime would gain little sympathy from the people.
Cheong Wa Dae’s stern warning to Song alone also gives an impression that the presidential office regards inter-Korean dialogue as more important than military strategy.
Song apologized for his remark about Moon, but the defense minister’s authority has been damaged and whether dissent within the security team has been resolved is questionable.
On his visit to Washington in June, Moon made controversial remarks and received a warning from Cheong Wa Dae. He said the US-Korea joint military exercises could be scaled down if the North suspends its nuclear and missile tests.
He excused himself, saying he made the remarks as a professor, but his remarks attracted attention because he was presidential special adviser, though he insisted he had spoken as a scholar.
If he wants to express his opinions freely, it is right to do so after resigning from the role of special adviser.
Song also told lawmakers Tuesday he was told that humanitarian assistance to the North would be delayed for a long time, but the Ministry of Unification pointed out that his remark was misleading and emphasized the government position had not changed.
This reveals that the defense and unification ministries did not coordinate their policies sufficiently.
Song told lawmakers on Sept. 4 that he was willing to consider the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, but took back his words after Cheong Wa Dae cautioned him against diverging from the official position. This reflects a lack of policy reconciliation or the existence of miscommunication among top security officials.
North Korea is on the brink of completing its nuclear and missile program, and the US seeks to strengthen sanctions further. In his address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if it was forced to defend itself and its allies.
“It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the North Korean regime until it ceases its hostile behavior,” Trump added.
It is doubtful that the government’s security team is decisive and united enough in pressuring the North.
Discord within the team is nothing to sneeze at. It must speak with one assertive voice.