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Im’s ambition betrays him

Nov 02,2018
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Blue House Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok, second from left, inspects the military’s removal of landmines on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone to excavate the remains of fallen South and North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, left, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, second from right, and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, far right, accompanied Im on Oct. 17. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
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Park Bo-gyoon
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Blue House Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok is aggressive. This position is usually reserved for those with reticence and subtleness. But his moves and tendencies defy such virtues. He reinforced his reputation with a visit to the DMZ in Cheorwon Gangwon, on Oct. 17.

It was the site where the South Korean military was removing landmines to excavate the remains of the fallen South and North Korean soldiers during the 1950-53 Korean War as part of a joint effort to pave the way for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Im’s presence was highlighted. National Intelligence Service director Suh Hun, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo all accompanied him. The scene leaves a clear mark, as it shows the power hierarchy. Minor opposition Bareunmirae Party head Sohn Hak-kyu said, “I was surprised. While the president was touring Europe, his chief of staff accompanied the NIS director, unification minister and defense minister and visited the front line.”

Im was the only one wearing sunglasses, which was enough to project the image that he was leading the group. The chief of the National Intelligence Service was standing behind him. It is unprecedented for the two men to appear together without the president. The chief of staff and the NIS chief are the core of the national administration. Checks and balances between the two positions help maintain the health of our presidential system, but the scene ignored this lesson.

Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom explained that Im’s visit was only aimed at checking the implementation of the inter-Korean Joint Declaration as the head of the committee. President Moon, who had been former President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff, wrote in a memoir, “The chief of staff needs to guard the Blue House in the absence of the president. I was exhausted from emergency duties rather than accompanying the president.” Controversy over Im’s surprising move erupted, as he did not focus on his basic mission as the chief of staff.

On the Blue House’s official YouTube channel, Im says, “I visited Hwasalmeori Hill, where the first joint remains excavation was in progress.” Excavation operations in the DMZ are a challenge. As he described, it was a “slow and long process.” Mines and unexploded bombs need to be removed first. The video showed rusting dog tags and a water bottle with more than 30 bullet holes. But the video didn’t feel real.

The Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification (Makri) are excavating the area. The soldiers dig up the ground with precision and desperation. They are the first ones to face the lives lost 65 years ago. So the heroes of the video should have been the soldiers. Most people would want to hear them talk about how they felt at the moment of discovery.

The video led by Im Jong-seok was lame. He should not be the main character in this story. He should have given the microphone to the soldiers. He concluded, “It is the duty of the nation to send back the remains of those who sacrificed for the nation to their families.” It sounds plagiarized. The Makri slogan is simple and strong. “Send them back to the homeland.”

Im Jong-seok is enjoying his heyday. On Oct. 29, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun came to visit Im. The meeting at the Blue House was requested by the United States. Biegun had the first meeting with him, followed by a meeting with National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong.

The Moon administration is aggressively pursuing inter-Korean exchanges. The United States is tightening economic sanctions on North Korea. The North’s denuclearization stance becomes cleverer. Biegun seems to have asked Seoul to slow the pace.
The United States seems to perceive Im as the working-level leader on inter-Korean relations — instead of the foreign, reunification and defense ministries.

Key players in the Blue House staff were in the National College Student Council in the turbulent 1980s. As they have ideological solidarity, they value solving inter-Korean problems themselves. Im is the central figure among them. Rumors of Im’s presidential ambitions are spreading fast.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 1, Page 31