South Korean President Moon Jae-in has appointed a new Unification Minister in an effort to welcome a new era of peace on the peninsula. Outgoing Unification Minister (in effect, Seoul’s proverbial ‘Minister for DPRK Affairs) Cho Myoung-gyon will be replaced by Kim Yeon-chul, a man with a long record of advocating peace and win-win engagement with Pyongyang.
Moon’s appointment of Kim demonstrates a clear desire by the Blue House to not only maintain the momentum of the peace process, but to give it a boost after the Kim Jong-un/Donald Trump summit in Hanoi failed to produce any concrete agreements beyond an oral acknowledgement of personal good will between the two leaders.
It is likewise noteworthy that the appointment of Kim Yeon-chul comes shortly after South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha proposed holding trilateral peace talks with the DPRK and USA in order to foster continued progress in the Korean peace process and to likewise avoid the possibility of stagnation after the recent DPRK-US Summit in Hanoi concluded without any concrete agreements being made. The fact of the matter is that such a trilateral summit should have been held long ago as South Korea has a major interest in seeing that the peace process succeeds, whilst under the leadership of the peace minded President Moon Jae-in, Seoul likewise offers a unique perspective on regional events that sits somewhere between the positions of the DPRK and United States.
In this sense, whilst Kim Yeon-chul’s tasks are many, organising such a trilateral summit may well be one of his most important aims.
While the magnetic personalities of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have become the public image of the peace process, it cannot be forgotten that the comparatively soft spoken and demure Moon Jae-in was the one who convinced the DPRK that South Korea was genuinely interested in grabbing hold of Kim’s olive branch in a spirit of good faith. It has also been the South Korean government that has helped to convince the wider world that both Korean states are equally committed to forever putting the troubles of the past to rest.
It must further be recalled that in the months prior to last year’s historic Singapore Summit, when at one point Donald Trump dramatically axed his meeting with Kim, it was quiet but persistent South Korean diplomacy which helped both sides to reconcile, thus paving the way for Donald Trump’s first ever meeting with Kim Jong-un, a man he now openly calls his friend.
The Blue House has not only done much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes to ensure a new era in DPRK-US relations unfolds and solidifies, but South Korea in many ways stands to be the biggest beneficiary of the peace process. As a state that had grown used to isolation, whilst the DPRK desires peace, its economy and society were well prepared for the opposite. Likewise, the US mainland was never a realistic target for an attack, even in the event that DPRK-US relations plunged below their 2017 nadir. But for South Korea, the tensions between the DPRK and US caused alarm, forced the country to develop a larger than necessary military apparatus and prohibited both the building of a much desired gas pipeline to Russia, as well as prohibiting direct Belt and Road economic connectivity with China.
By contrast, a Korean peninsula at peace with itself would reduce energy prices in the energy hungry South Korea, would help to foster more trade with China and would assure that costs on security measures could be dramatically cut. Because of this, South Korea’s voice in the peace process is as important in front of the cameras as it is behind the scenes. A state that stands to gain as much from the peace process as South Korea, deserves its perceptive heard as loudly as those of the USA and DPRK.
By failing to adopt the western media’s pessimistic tone about the Korean peace process in the aftermath of the Hanoi Summit, Seoul is instead taking proactive measures to ensure that the peace process is both consistent in its aims and flexible in its methods. Because of this, the appointment of an ardently pro-peace and pro-connectivity Unification Minister by President Moon should be seen as a positive development for Korea and the world as a whole.