The Korea Herald


Yoon expected to overhaul foreign, unification ministries

Foreign Ministry may regain trade; Unification Ministry predicted to reduce roles

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : March 23, 2022 - 14:47

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Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the transition committee, presides over the general meeting of the presidential transition committee on Monday. (Yonhap) Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the transition committee, presides over the general meeting of the presidential transition committee on Monday. (Yonhap)

Speculations are rising that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Unification could see major changes under the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.

The Foreign Ministry may regain trade functions from the Industry Ministry with growing importance on economic security. The Unification Ministry, meanwhile, appears likely to see its role reduced amid increasing tensions with the North.

Talk of the transfer of trade affairs dates back to the promises made by Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the transition committee, when he was a presidential candidate. In December, he pledged to transfer the trade work of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “to respond efficiently” in the era of science, technology, economy and diplomacy.

On Tuesday, Ahn held a meeting with the committee’s foreign affairs members. They exchanged opinions on the causes of the current government’s “diplomatic failure” and discussed “functional organizational arrangements” according to the trend of the times, according to the committee’s spokesperson. The functional organizational arrangements are interpreted as the reorganization of the foreign affairs and industry ministries.

Ahn and the committee members said the key to future security lies in “securing strategic materials” as well as a military power. Securing strategic supplies is related to economic security, such as supply chains.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also seeks to integrate diplomacy and trade functions, stressing “economic security” as the US-China conflict intensifies and global supply chain issues arise.

In the previous Kim Dae-jung and Lee Myung-bak administrations, diplomacy and trade co-existed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Since 2013 during the Park Geun-hye administration, industry and trade have been overseen by the Industry Ministry.

The Industry Ministry, however, has expressed concerns over the reshuffle.

They say industry and trade functions should “co-exist” considering major domestic industries are seeking to expand globally. Officials say the Industry Ministry has more professional knowledge and economic understanding for trade, and they worry that trade issues could take a backseat if approached too much from a diplomatic and political perspective.

The transition committee plans to finalize the reorganization plan after receiving reports from each ministry. The presidential transition committee is expected to receive reports from the two ministries on Thursday.

The Ministry of Unification, which is in charge of inter-Korean relations, is also expected to be reorganized and change its policy under Yoon’s administration, which takes a hard-line stance toward North Korea.

Yoon has not explicitly expressed his position on the ministry, but some lawmakers from the People Power Party and its party leader Lee Jun-seok have backed abolishing the department, saying that the ministries of unification and gender have “ended their lives.”

On Wednesday, Shin Yong-hyun, a spokesman for the transition committee, said in a briefing that the Ministry of Unification “will not be abolished.”

“The Ministry of Unification should strengthen inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation and humanitarian efforts under the principle that the ministry should regain its functions,” Shin said.

As tensions grow over North Korea’s repeated provocations, Yoon’s administration is expected to focus more on principle rather than flexibility in terms of policies toward the North.

In the organization chart of Yoon’s transition committee, the word “unification” does not appear in any of the seven branches. The foreign affairs and security branch also put more weight on diplomacy and security than on North Korea relations.

Observers noted that the Unification Ministry could be reorganized focusing on North Korean human rights and support projects for defectors, which Yoon promised, instead of inter-Korean economic, cultural and social exchanges.