North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s act of acknowledgement on the change of power in the rival South Korea was a sort of firework display –- the launching of a long-range missile supposedly capable of hitting the mainland of the United States, Seoul’s trusted military ally. To the embarrassment of the 34-year-old dictator, the intercontinental ballistic missile with a designed range of 12,000 kilometers exploded midair shortly after blastoff.
The Hwasong series No. 17 rocket was fired at 10 a.m. March 11, just a day after Yoon Suk-yeol was declared winner in South Korea’s 20th presidential election since the republic was founded in 1948. South Korean and US surveillance eyes detected the failed testing of the North Korean ICBM in real time, while the North’s official media outlets were completely silent about the incident.
Pyongyang did not openly support, or denounce, any one side in the monthslong presidential campaign in South Korea, although the Northern leadership would naturally like to have the leftist Democratic Party remain in power with its soft, reconciliatory stance toward the North maintained. The Communist propaganda machine knows too well that any sympathetic message to a specific political force here could only be counterproductive among South Korean electorate.
Hence, the best way for them to interfere with the quintennial election in the South should be the scare tactic of raising the level of security threat: Kim Jong-un had his strategic weapons command to fire an assortment of missiles into the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula during the election period here. North Korean TV showed the spectacles of rocket launches in growing frequency to be relayed by South Korean broadcasters. But, unfortunately for Kim, the Hwasong-17 fizzled out at the climax.
Undaunted, Kim Jong-un will raise the ante against Seoul’s new president, who has called for tougher security steps toward the North, such as additional deployment of US terminal high-altitude aerial defense (THAAD) batteries and increasing the preemptive strike capability of South Korean armed forces against the North’s weapons of mass destruction. For his part, Yoon quickly made a round of telephone talks with the leaders of all four members of the QUAD: the US, Japan, Australia and India.
Outgoing President Moon Jae-in will most regret when he leaves Cheong Wa Dae on May 9 that there was no real progress in his quest for denuclearization of North Korea despite his great efforts in meeting Kim Jong-un in person three times and helping arrange three rounds of talks between Kim and former US president Trump. Neither his successor Yoon nor the South Korean public are going to appreciate Moon’s fruitless endeavors.
Kim Jong-un may still comfort himself with the thought that his WMD arsenal gives him an advantage over the South, but he should have reconfirmed the sturdiness of the democratic system in the Southern republic. The ruling power was shifted here with the extremely small margin of 0.73 percent in a most peaceful election after a fierce partisan contest. It must have utterly surprised him that the governing party candidate accepted defeat by 240,000 votes, which is 20 percent less than the number of invalid ballots.
The winner, who entered politics less than a year ago after 26 years of service as a public prosecutor, has yet to make clear how he will steer inter-Korean relations and handle the third and present ruler of the Northern dynasty. He has just manifested adherence to the military alliance with the US and initiatives to bolster international pressure to achieve denuclearization of the North.
He should have realized that his imminent adversaries are poised here in Seoul, rather than in Pyongyang, occupying 172 seats in the 300-member unicameral legislature. When the new right-wing leader took up his first task expeditiously last weekend to translate into action his major campaign promise of relocating the presidential office to a military compound in southern Seoul, leftist warriors showed little intent to cooperate.
In 2017, while campaigning to fill the vacancy created by the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, Moon had made the same commitment of disusing the present Cheong Wa Dae or Blue House, the symbol of “imperial presidency,” but he eventually swallowed the public promise, with an excuse of security problems. Yoon vowed to complete relocation of the presidential office and turn it into a public park on the day of his inauguration.
The president-elect revised his original plan to use part of the Integrated Administration Complex building in front of the Gwanghwamun Gate and chose the military compound in Yongsan, some 7 kilometers to the south. The blue-tiled mansion behind Gyeongbok Palace, dedicated in 1991, has been criticized for separating the chief executive from the people and even from his own aides because of impractical layout design aimed to inspire awe and prestige at the cost of efficiency.
Upon the sudden decision to move the presidential staff into the 10-story Ministry of National Defense building, causing a chain of relocations involving the ministry, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some other military functions in the Yongsan compound, concerns were expressed by defense experts with the likely confusion in the armed forces command and control system, however brief it may be.
In his press briefing, Yoon stressed his wish “to contact routinely with the people” through low fences where neighboring people and tourists can have free access like in other countries. Yet, I suspect the president-elect might have an important ulterior motive in securing his physical presence in the midst of the nation’s top military leaders.
Civilian control of the military has been firmly rooted in this republic since democratic reforms in the late 1980s when unformed people finally gave up their influence on the government and politics. Three and a half decades after the transition, there is still a conceptual division between the civilian rulers and the military community. Now, Yoon has the novel vision of the presidential office nestled in the traditional military zone, where civil-military collaboration is ideally underway for national security.
While Kim Jong-un in the North keeps frolicking with his rockets, the sight of civilian and uniformed officials working in adjoining offices in Yongsan is hoped to provide our citizens with a stronger sense of security. MND and JCS officers in the compound are sure to feel heavier responsibility and bigger pride as they perceive spatial proximity with the civilian head of state. Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and former managing editor of The Korea Times. -– Ed.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com