The entire month of May, South Korea was in the throes of yet another scandal involving the government, which can be best summarized as follows. On 7 May 2019, ROK’s President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump had a 35-minute telephone conversation, during which, according to official records, the two sides discussed Seoul’s intentions to provide humanitarian food aid to the DPRK, and the possibility of restarting negotiations on denuclearization of Pyongyang and its deterrence via dialogue.
However, on 9 May Khang Hyo-shang, a Liberty Korea Party parliamentarian, held a press conference to say that, in fact, during the call Moon Jae-in asked Donald Trump to visit South Korea straight after his trip to Japan (where, at the time, the U.S. President was planning to go from 25 to 28 May). According to the lawmaker, the U.S. leader responded that it would be reasonable to stop in Seoul for a brief meeting with ROK’s President on his way back. The option of staging the meeting near an American military base was discussed. Khang Hyo-shang claimed that Moon Jae-in essentially begged Donald Trump to come to Seoul by telling his American counterpart that the visit was what South Korean people wished for, and that it was necessary to send a message to the North.
The Liberty Korea Party member also added that in response to a request for a meeting between the two nations’ National Security Advisors, made by Chung Eui-yong, John R. Bolton said “What for? There’s no need for any talks”.
South Korea’s presidential administration was quick to refute Khang Hyo-shang’s claims saying that his statements were groundless, irresponsible and in contravention of diplomatic protocols. Allegedly, there were too many discrepancies in the National Assembly member’s words about the format, the aims, and the timing of the U.S. President’s visit. When in fact, no specific agreements were reached on this particular issue.
Afterwards Koh Min-jeong, the Spokeswoman of the Blue House, stated that during the telephone conversation, the U.S. and ROK sides agreed on the need for Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea. However, timeframes and other particulars were to be discussed at a later date. Hence, it turned out that Khang Hyo-shang was not wrong about the key outcome of the dialogue but only some minor details.
Some time later, the administration said that the incident was, in fact, a leak of secret information. One of Moon Jae-in’s aides told journalists that telephone conversations between leaders of two nations are classed as level 3 confidential (in terms of government and diplomatic clearance required to access such information). Then, if we are to believe the conservatives, ROK’s embassy in the United States was essentially closed, and all of its employees were subjected to a search. Even personal mobile phones were confiscated to learn where the leak had come from.
In the end, a diplomat at the South Korean embassy in the USA was found to have been responsible for the breach. He happened to be Khang Hyo-shang’s younger classmate in high school. On 8 May, the consular employee shared the aforementioned secret information with his older friend. Naturally, he was immediately called back and, on return to the ROK, his interrogations began.
On 16 May, the Spokeswoman for South Korea’s presidential administration, Koh Min-jeong, announced that U.S. President Donald Trump would come to Seoul at the end of June, either before or after the G20 Summit in the Japanese city of Osaka, which is scheduled for 28-29 of June. According to her statement, the details of the visit would be arranged via diplomatic channels. The leaders of the two countries are to discuss approaches for establishing lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula via a complete denuclearization of North Korea and the strengthening of bilateral ties. The White House also made a corresponding announcement about the upcoming visit. Thus, even the news about this “begged for” visit is no longer a secret. And it seems the government’s main issue with Khang Hyo-shang is that he revealed the underlying reasons for the visit and the way it had been requested.
On 29 May, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in apologized to the public about the scandal surrounding the leak of classified information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his speech during a cabinet meeting, the ROK leader stated that the unthinkable happened, and promised to make every effort to strengthen security measures for safeguarding top secret information, and to improve discipline among government workers. He also criticized any attempts to take advantage of the situation for political gain, and expressed sincere regret about Liberty Korea Party’s statements that said South Korean people had the right to be informed about details of such negotiations. ROK’s President offered an apology on behalf of the government about the leak of classified data, which could have an impact on national security. He said the incident was unforgivable and inexplicable as nothing like that should ever happen.
The President noted that the issue at stake was the complex (from a diplomatic perspective) telephone conversation between the heads of two states. And he urged the opposition party to follow basic rules on governing the nation, as confidentiality is an integral part of diplomacy and the conservatives ought to be aware of that.
Then Kang Kyung-wha, ROK’s Foreign Minister, got involved by stating that leaks and revelations of such nature posed a threat to all diplomatic efforts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised to exercise “zero tolerance” towards the diplomat responsible, and said that the disciplinary committee on this issue would be headed by the 1st Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cho Sei-young. This representative from the Foreign Ministry emphasized that no leniency would be shown to the man who had committed such an egregious act.
On 31 May, the diplomat who had conveyed the details about the telephone call to Khang Hyo-shang was fired from the Ministry. Disciplinary action was taken against another Foreign Ministry employee who had printed the transcript of the aforementioned conversation, thus facilitating the leak of classified information. His salary was reduced for the period of three months. Initially, staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suspected that the diplomat, responsible for the breach, had passed on other classified information to the lawmaker. However, such allegations were not confirmed. The defense team for the aforementioned Foreign Ministry employee disagreed with the committee’s decision and called his dismissal an excessive measure, since the diplomat’s actions that had led to the leak of information were not premeditated.
In addition, the government officially requested that the law enforcement agencies start a criminal investigation against the diplomat who leaked the classified information and the parliamentarian, Khang Hyo-shang. In addition, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea decided to have the case reviewed by the public service ethics committee.
The nation’s leadership believes that the incident was a serious breach of national security protocols, as only the Ambassador ought to have access to such information at South Korea’s embassy in the United States. And the leak has little to do with the issue of divulging information for the public good, but such a breach may jeopardize security on the Korean Peninsula. Hence, it is important to strengthen security measures and introduce tougher punishments for any violators.
The Liberty Korea members oppose such an approach. They highlight that people have the right to access such information, especially because the records of the conversation published by both sides differed even before the leak. Legislator Khang Hyo-shang took action in order to show his concern about a potential split in the alliance between Seoul and Washington, which is very important for the conservatives. And if the diplomat was right to do so, it means the Blue House misled the nation.
The act of handing over the case to the law enforcement agencies has been called a threatening high-pressure tactic. The conservatives claim that the President is attempting to push the opposition towards its demise with his actions, and, at the same time, the administration wishes to conceal their diplomatic failures by sacrificing ordinary government workers. In addition, the head of the Liberty Korea Party, Hwang Kyo-ahn, accused the government of being inconsistent in its responses, as at first, the Blue House claimed that Khang Hyo-shang’s statement was far from the truth, but then completely changed the narrative by calling the incident a leak of classified information.
In turn, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea has criticized the opposition for interfering with national interests and demanded that the conservatives expel Hwang Kyo-ahn from the party. During a press briefing, the spokesman for the Democratic Party of Korea asserted that it was absurd to illegally publicize confidential telephone negotiations in order to satisfy the people’s right to know.
In general, criticism of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been growing. There is a view that the incident illustrates a lack of competence of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who was appointed to this post without the approval from the National Assembly some time back. Some critics assert that diplomatic failures of this nature were a result of Kang Kyung-wha’s non-existent leadership skills and a lack of discipline in the entire ministry.
This year alone, the Foreign Ministry has shown poor judgement on a number of diplomatic issues. The incidents include the times when the Czech Republic was called Czechoslovakia and the three Baltic nations were referred to as the Balkans; an obviously wrinkled South Korean flag was on display during bilateral negotiations between the ROK and Spain; the details of the telephone conversation between Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump were leaked, and alleged abuses of power were committed by South Korean ambassadors to Mongolia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
A number of aides to the President told the Korea Times that although some parliamentarians of South Korea’s ruling party had urged Moon Jae-in to reassess Kang Kyung-wha’s suitability for the role, it was unlikely that he would fire her straightaway. After all, ROK’s President has also committed his fair share of diplomatic faux pas. For example, during his press conference with Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Moon Jae-in used an Indonesian salutation, and confused greetings used in the evening and the daytime. He also offered a toast during a banquet arranged by the Sultan of Brunei, who rigorously adheres to Islamic norms and does not drink alcohol.
We would also like to focus on another aspect of this situation. Normally, when leaks of classified information occur, a covert internal investigation is initiated and the punishment chosen for the accused is not publicized. But in this particular case, the identity of the suspect was revealed straight away, and certain media outlets sensationalized the investigation that followed.
What purpose did this serve? The Korea Times opined that the government wanted to use the case to shut the opposition up or to demonstrate to the United States that order had been restored in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the author thinks that this scandal showcases the overall state of South Korea’s foreign policies, as it is hard for Moon Jae-in to boast about any successes in this area.
Let us begin with ROK’s relationship with the United States. At times, South Korea’s President is portrayed as a politician who stands up to pressure exerted by Washington judging by some of his quotes. But the discontent he expresses is just for show and is aimed at people inside South Korea only. In reality, what Moon jae-in says varies according to the location.
In the meantime, Washington is not only irritated by Seoul’s tendency to get ahead of itself with regards to the issue of resolving the Korean conflict, but also by the fact that information coming from the ROK about its Northern neighbor’s position is not always accurate. In addition, Moon Jae-in constantly tries to transform the two-way dialogue into a trilateral one by creating an impression that Washington and Pyongyang will not be able to reach any kind of an agreement without Seoul.
Undoubtedly, Trump’s protectionist policies do have a negative impact on South Korea, still less so than on China (but not necessarily on other nations). Therefore, the relationship between the USA and the ROK remains tense, and Washington still has the means of exerting economic pressure on Seoul. However, the frequency of the meetings between the leaders of the United States and South Korea is such that if the President had been from the conservative ranks, the leftist opposition forces, headed by Moon Jae-in, would have invariably criticized him for his lack of initiative and an overreliance on U.S. sanctions.
South Korea’s relations with China somewhat improved after Seoul decided not to have American anti-ballistic missile systems on its territory. But still, some parts of ROK’s businesses in the PRC had to be sold off, while the number of Chinese tourists in South Korea and the amount of South Korean goods in China have not returned to former levels.
However, similarly to the issue with THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), Seoul once again finds itself between a rock and a hard place (i.e. China and the United States). The USA demands that South Korea join its boycott of Huawei and the anti-Chinese Indo-Pacific Alliance (led by the United States), but this could lead to a retaliation from Beijing. We also must not forget about the attempts to blame the PRC for Seoul’s smog levels. All of these factors combined let to Xi Jinping’s cancellation of his visit to South Korea, scheduled for June 2019, without any explanation.
ROK’s relations with Japan remain poor, as the government’s anti-Japanese stance is still a part of its ideology. And one gets an impression that South Korea is eagerly looking for a reason to once again accuse the Japanese of not paying enough in damages or not being sufficiently penitent. And although Moon Jae-in was forced to admit that he did not consider a 2015 agreement on “comfort women” to have been severed, de facto, the international community still found itself in an untenable situation. While Japan did fulfill its side of the obligations, the ROK, nevertheless, announced that the agreements made did not take into account the victims and did not reflect South Korean’s wishes.
The ROK relationship with Russia does not seem to suffer from such deep-rooted problems. However, if we were to look at all the spectacular projects that Moon Jae-in’s administration has proposed to Moscow, their only difference from the initiatives coming from Park Geun-hye’s and Lee Myung-bak’s governments is their names. The underlying concepts are essentially the same. South Korea expects natural resources in exchange for spare parts and electronic goods. Plus the cooperation between the two nations would improve vastly if it were not for the issue with the DPRK. And eliminating this problem would radically increase the extent of collaboration.
Moon Jae-in’s relations with other regions, including Europe, could be summed up in one phrase, typical of previously issued diplomatic communiques, “sides have agreed to continue cooperation,” with no mention of specific spheres or of documents signed.
Furthermore, South Korea is facing a new challenge in connection with refugees from Islamic regions. Unlike illegal immigrants from South East Asian countries, those stemming from Muslim countries are readily noticeable and do not wish to adapt to accepted cultural norms. Of course, the numbers of refugees are far from those in EU countries, but South Koreans’ response to them is comparable to that in Europe and the government is forced to take a middle ground.
At present, the only thing that ROK’s President can boast about is the de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. We are not going to try to determine whether idealism or pragmatism prompted Moon Jae-in’s decision to support Kim Jong-un’s initiative, most importantly, there is a respite from the conflict. As a consequence, the President’s gradually falling approval ratings climb back up every time a successful Inter-Korean event is staged, but then they invariably start decreasing steadily once again in response to internal political issues and economic difficulties. However, despite the signing of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, the end to all the hostilities associated with the Korean War has not been announced and Kim Jong-un is yet to visit the ROK. In addition, North Koreans have begun asking the following question to Seoul with greater frequency “Is South Korea acting in the interest of Korean people or is it an ally to Washington?”. Hence, with time it will become more and more difficult for Moon Jae-in to use the Inter-Korean card to his advantage.
According to Won Gon Park, a Professor of International Studies at the Handong Global University, Kang Kyung-wha is not a competent Foreign Minister, and she seems to lack a general strategy for handling turbulent diplomacy prevailing in the region. South Korean diplomatic efforts are still focused on North Korea but things have to change. Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA), agrees with his counterpart. He says that there is a new South Korean policy and a new North Korean policy but the DPRK is still at the center of all ROK’s diplomatic efforts.
And if we were to now return to the issue of the scandal and the surrounding rhetoric, the author of this article has not forgotten that Moon Jae-in’s and his faction’s favorite song used to be “People ought to know the truth and to hell with secrecy” while they opposed and fought against Park Geun-hye. Since everyone knows governments have secrets. But now the tables have turned.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.