+ A

Chief of staff heads to UAE and Lebanon as special envoy

Dec 12,2017
President Moon Jae-in sent Im Jong-seok, Blue House chief of staff, as a special envoy to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon on a four-day trip, which has in turn sparked speculation as to whether he will have some sort of secret contact with North Korean officials.

Blue House spokesman Park Soo-hyun told reporters Sunday that Im kicked off the trip Saturday, which would include meetings with South Korean troops dispatched in the two countries.

Since January 2011, Korea has maintained a special operations unit known as “Akh,” meaning “brother” in Arabic, in the UAE, tasked with training special forces soldiers, conducting joint exercises and protecting Korean nationals there. Over the past decade, the Korean military has likewise stationed its “Dongmyeong” unit as part of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, to join in the UN-led peacekeeping operations in the country since July 2007.

Im on Sunday met with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, for around 40 minutes. He also met with the Akh Unit in the UAE, touring the facilities, receiving a briefing by the soldiers and presenting them a gift from Moon, a clock. On Monday, he was scheduled to meet with President of Lebanon Michel Aoun and tour the Dongmyeong Unit with him. This is the first time in 14 years that a presidential chief of staff has been sent as a special envoy, since the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

The official said that during a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and a luncheon with military personnel posted at the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the inter-Korean border, Moon said, “I am able to encourage soldiers here at any time, but I am haunted by thought of those troops dispatched overseas who are undergoing hardships.”

The UAE’s Foreign Ministry announced in October it will terminate diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, ending the mission of North Korea’s non-resident ambassador, and even halting the issuance of visas and company licenses to North Koreans. But Lebanon still maintains relations with Pyongyang. Lebanon’s ambassador to Russia also covers North Korea.

Furthermore, South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo already paid a visit to the Akh and Dongmyeong units just last month during his Middle East visit early November which covered the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Lebanon.

Thus, the mysterious nature of Im’s visit sparked speculation in the media that he may be making secret contact with North Korean officials during the Middle East visit. A key Blue House official shot down such questions, and said Im “does not have any plans to meet anyone aside from the official schedule, and he will make a direct round trip to and from the Middle East on civilian aircraft.”

Im was accompanied by Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk and Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Yoon Soon-gu. There were no Blue House national security officials in his delegation. The Blue House said that it decided on the trip early this month.

BY KANG TAE-HWA, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]