SEOUL – With the clock ticking on South Korea’s withdrawal from a security pact with Japan in November, President Moon Jae-in sent a blunt-speaking aide on a secret mission to Washington.
The aide, deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong, was a curious choice to broker a truce between the feuding neighbors. Kim had for the past few months been among the chief advocates of escalating the dispute with Japan and pulling out of the intelligence-sharing agreement.
The peace mission worked. Kim returned from a three-hour White House meeting with a U.S. endorsement of Moon’s plan to save the agreement and open talks with Tokyo, according to an official familiar with the talks. Japan accepted the arrangement and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later met with Moon to discuss how to get their relationship back on track.
South Korea’s feud with Japan — the worst dust-up in decades between the two countries — highlighted Moon’s reliance on advisers with strong, sometimes conflicting, views to execute dramatic policy shifts. Since taking office in 2017, Moon has repeatedly found his hard-charging aides dominating the headlines, for infighting, off-color remarks and personal scandals.
Kim is a confrontational former trade minister, corporate lawyer and United Nations diplomat who a decade ago broke off free-trade talks with Japan over what he said was a fear that the country was on the verge of “taking control” of the South Korean economy. His appointment sent a signal that the Moon administration would be less willing to accede to demands from Washington or Tokyo.
In the end, South Korea was forced to pull back from the fight with one partner to avoid a rift with the other. Kim found the hard-line stance toward Japan he took as a trade envoy threatened to damage an alliance he considers even more essential to South Korea’s success.
“Moon apparently thought Kim did a good job as the trade minister and is someone who can negotiate in a tough way,” said Choi Kang, vice president at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies who previously worked in the National Security Council. “But it turns out that Kim’s appointment might be a failed one. Kim made a lot of noise in dealing with the issues that could have been addressed quietly.”
Kim declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokesman for Moon’s office said he wouldn’t comment on the performance of a presidential aide and deferred to a former spokesman’s February 2019 assessment of Kim as “an expert in diplomacy and trade who has protected national interest at various crises with his unique endurance and excellent negotiation skills.”
Kim’s views have brought him into conflict with another presidential office aide who disagrees with his push to prioritize U.S. relations over building ties with North Korea, according to South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo. The dispute grew so intense that Kim offered to resign, Chosun said, citing a ruling party official it didn’t identify.
The Moon spokesman denied that Kim and the aide were in a dispute.
Moon’s inner circle has come under greater scrutiny as he prepares for parliamentary elections in April, the biggest electoral test of his single, five-year term. The president’s approval rating has hovered near record lows since another former close aide, Justice Minister Cho Kuk, was forced to resign and later indicted as part of a corruption investigation.
While Cho was the architect of one of the government’s biggest domestic agenda items — a controversial effort to curb the power of state prosecutors — Kim is a key proponent of one of its biggest foreign policy shifts: a more assertive approach to Japan. Moon’s threat to withdraw from the intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo was the latest exchange in a decades-old dispute over whether Japan has sufficiently atoned for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Kim demonstrated his penchant for getting tough with Japan in 2007, when he was tapped by President Roh Moo-hyun to handle negotiations on a trade deal between the two countries. Roh warned Kim at their first meeting that he would “have issues” with the media if he ever ran for office.
The then-deputy trade minister said he was so stricken by rage while negotiating with Japan that he lost sleep. “I woke up and felt grit in my mouth. I was clenching my teeth so hard while asleep in anger and part of my molar fell off,” Kim wrote about the decision to cancel the deal in a 2010 memoir.
Despite his misgivings about Japan, Kim helped land major trade deals with the U.S. and European Union.
“I have enormous respect for him, both his vision and his ability to work with others to translate his vision into reality,” said Wendy Cutler, a former chief U.S. trade negotiator who’s now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Kim “assembled a first-rate team and took risks that other trade ministers would have avoided and convinced Roh to conclude the (U.S.) deal when vocal opposition was building.”
Kim later served as envoy to the U.N. and did a stint as a lawyer for Samsung Electronics Co., South Korea’s biggest and most influential company. He then volunteered at a hospital in Chinese city of Dandong on the North Korean border, where he gained insight into Pyongyang’s politics.
Moon, who was previously Roh’s chief of staff, picked Kim for his own administration to help navigate a delicate relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and increasing trade and security demands from U.S. President Donald Trump. A long-time proponent of peace with North Korea, Moon hoped Kim Hyun-chong could help him negotiate an inter-Korean trade deal, the official said.
Hopes for such a pact faded last year after denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. broke down and Pyongyang rejected Moon’s efforts to mediate. Instead, Kim Hyun-chong found himself at the center of another dispute with his old foil, Japan, which last year tightened export controls on some materials to the country.
But Seoul’s effort to hit back at Tokyo backfired after the Trump administration criticized the decision to withdraw from the intelligence-sharing pact, warning it endangered American troops. The disagreement strained ties with Washington just as Trump was reopening the question about whether South Korea needed to pay more for U.S. security protection.
S. Paul Choi, a former strategist for the U.N. Command who’s now managing director for the geopolitical risk advisory firm StratWays Group, said the episode suggested that the qualities that made Kim an effective trade negotiator may have complicated his efforts to shape national security policy.
“It is questionable whether he can also play the ‘partner’ and ‘cooperative’ role that is required of an effective deputy national security adviser,” Choi said.