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Who will carry President Moon’s message to North Korea?

With President Moon Jae-in announcing his plan to send a special envoy to North Korea, attention is now on who will carry the president’s message amid Seoul’s efforts to open up direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.

During his 30-minute telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump late Thursday, Moon said he would send an envoy “soon” in return for the visit by Kim Yo-jung, younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who invited Moon for a summit in Pyeongyang, the Blue House said.

Among the likely candidates for special envoy is Suh Hoon, the National Intelligence Service chief, and Unification Minister Cho Myung-kyun. They attended the meeting hosted by President Moon for Kim Yo-jung and her delegate last month.

When introducing Suh and Cho to Kim and the North’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam at Blue House on Feb. 10, the president said his advisers‘ presence shows his “willingness to improve inter-Korea ties in a rapid and proactive manner."

NIS chief Suh Hoon. Yonhap
NIS chief Suh Hoon. Yonhap

Also on the list is Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jeong-suk, another attendant at the luncheon with Kim Yo-jung and a key architect of the Olympic detente, although the speculation is rampant that Moon favors using official government agencies dedicated to North Korea.

During the liberal Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung administrations, an NIS chief and unification minister were sent to North Korea as a special envoy. The first summit took place in 2000 during the Kim administration and the second during the Roh admiration in 2007.

Former special envoys said NIS chief Suh is “the right choice,” highlighting his expertise in North Korea and close ties with President Moon and his US counterpart Mike Pompeo.

“I think Suh is the right choice… He has been coordinating well with other government agencies and building a good relationship with the US intelligence agency,” said Rep. Park Jie-won of the Democratic Peace Party, who served as a presidential envoy to the North during the Kim Dae-jung administration.

Suh is thought to be playing a key role in setting the stage for direct talks between the US and North Korea. Since his appointment last year, Suh has reportedly travelled to the US several times and met with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

An advocate of engagement policy with North Korea, Suh has attended several high-level inter-Korean talks, including the 2007 summit between former President Roh and North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong-il. Suh is regarded as the South Korean official who met the most number of times with the late Kim.

Along with Suh’s expertise on North Korea and close ties to Moon, Suh may also be North Korea‘s favored choice said Rep. Chung Dong-Young of the Democratic Peace Party, who served as a Unification Minister during the Roh administration and met with Kim Jong-il in 2005.

“North Koreans are very shy about strangers… so it’s important whether they have met the envoy before or not,” Chung said in an interview with local broadcaster. “Suh is the official who has met Kim jong-il the most. I think they have met about six times.”

Conservative opposition asserted it is “wrong practice” established under the engagement-seeking Roh and Kim administrations that the country’s top spy agency has worked behind the scenes to achieve inter-Korean talks.

Such practices are found in Moon’s memoir, “The Destiny,” where he recounted his memory of working as a presidential chief of staff to orchestrate the 2007 inter-Korean summit alongside then NIS Chief Kim Man-bok and presidential security adviser Baek Jong-hun.

Moon wrote that he was asked to be a special envoy by the two colleagues, but decided to settle the matter in accordance with “principle.” Eventually, Kim Man-bok went to the North as a special envoy and the inter-Korean summit took place about two months later.

“NIS chief is in charge of brining changes to North Korea and leading clandestine operations against it. Our national pride will be hurt if the people see him bow to Kim Jong-un,” said Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the minor opposition Bareun Mirae Party.

By Yeo Jun-suk(