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Blue House team hit for missing Japan’s reprisal

July 10,2019
As Tokyo’s export restrictions take Seoul by storm, there has been criticism of Korea’s foreign affairs and security team for not properly forecasting and responding to the retaliatory measures, despite being stacked with trade experts.

However, amid plans for a shakeup in the Blue House, a cabinet reshuffle may be put off for the moment to deal with the urgent diplomatic tensions with Japan which has spread from friction over historical issues to trade and security matters.

A Blue House official said recently that President Moon Jae-in “initially had been reviewing reshuffling the cabinet after mid-July,” however, “because of the Japan issue becoming serious, this is expected to have an impact on the timing of the reshuffle within the Blue House.”

Japan on Thursday implemented export restrictions to Korea of three key materials needed in the production of semiconductors and displays, which are expected to impact major tech companies here. The measures are seen as retaliation against Korean Supreme Court rulings last year ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to individual Korean victims of forced labor during World War II.

Seoul, while considering various scenarios of how Tokyo would respond to the court rulings, was nonetheless caught off guard at Japan’s direct blow against Korean companies.

The Blue House official continued, “The reshuffling of the cabinet is something for the president to decide on, so there is a limit as to what his advisers can say, but one thing that is clear is that the atmosphere is not one where a cabinet reshuffling can be discussed at the moment.”

The Blue House foreign affairs and security team is notably filled with trade and Japan experts, but they were not able to properly forecast and prepare measures against Tokyo’s export restrictions announced last week.

Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy chief of the Blue House National Security Office (NSO) and Moon’s former trade minister, met with Kim Ki-nam, a Samsung Electronics vice chairman, last week. This meeting with Samsung executives was revealed by the Blue House Thursday following the implementation of Japan’s restrictions.

A key Blue House official said, “Japan’s export controls could have a big impact on our country’s foreign affairs and security matters, so [NSO deputy chief] Kim, as a trade expert, has a deep understanding of the issue.”

Kim Hyun-chong previously served as Seoul’s chief negotiator for the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) under the Roh Moo-hyun administration and also was as a member of the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body and former ambassador to the United Nations (UN). He also previously served as chief legal officer at Samsung Electronics, one of the Korean companies impacted by Japan’s recent export controls.

Chung Eui-yong, director of the NSO, likewise was a career diplomat who previously served as deputy trade minister and an ambassador to the UN. During his time as lawmaker, Chung served as chairman of the National Assembly foreign affairs committee and served on a special parliamentary committee dealing with the Korea-U.S. FTA. Since he took his post as Moon’s national security adviser in 2017, there had been concern as to whether Chung will be able to properly handle diplomacy with the United States as well as the Korean Peninsula situation, but Chung has always shown confidence on trade matters.

Kim Hyun-chong’s predecessor as second deputy chief of the NSO, Nam Gwan-pyo, was appointed earlier this year as the Korean ambassador to Japan. Naming a Blue House senior official as the top diplomat to Tokyo at the time led to speculation that Moon intended to ease tensions in Korea-Japan relations. Similarly, a Japan expert, Cho Sei-young, the former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, was named first vice foreign minister in May.

Thus, some critics in diplomatic circles have pointed out that it was surprising that the Blue House couldn’t accurately forecast the timing and method of Japan’s retaliation against Korea, even with a group seemingly well-prepared to tackle such trade and diplomatic matters.

The Blue House claims that it has been preparing for possible retaliatory measures that may be taken by Tokyo, but if it had been able to forecast the situation, it may have asked Washington to play a mediating role before they were implemented.

Moon met with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 29 and 30, the weekend before Japan announced export restrictions on the three high-tech materials to Korea.

Ahead of his summit with Trump, Moon also traveled to Osaka, Japan, for the Group of 20 (G-20), leaders’ meeting. However, Moon didn’t get a chance to hold bilateral talks, scheduled or informal, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. Moon’s encounter with Abe was limited to an eight-second handshake Friday, leaving no room to discuss bilateral relations or exchange opinions on pressing concerns.

Blue House officials at that time said that holding such bilateral talks would be difficult until after the Japanese upper house elections on July 21.

Kim Hee-sang, a director-general for bilateral economic affairs at the Korean Foreign Ministry, will visit Washington later this week for talks with his U.S. counterparts on economic issues. He is expected to discuss the issue of Japan’s export restrictions on Korea during his talks with U.S. officials including Roland de Marcellus, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for international finance and development. The Korean Foreign Ministry on Tuesday confirmed that it has raised the issue of Japan’s economic retaliatory measures as an agenda item at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Council for Trade in Goods two-day meeting in Geneva, which kicked off Monday. The WTO general council will convene on July 23 and 24.

“There is a political background to the reason Japan decided on its retaliatory measures,” said a senior Blue House official. “The method or retaliation manifested itself through trade, but I cannot agree with the criticism that the foreign affairs and security lineup made up of trade experts was not able to handle the situation properly.”

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