Civil war in Seoul: 'Blue House' puts down pro-U.S. rebellion

Special to World
Friday, January 16, 2004

In crowd: New Foreign Minister Bank Ki Moon, left, and President Roh Moo-Hyun's National Security Advisor, Ra Jong-Yil
SEOUL - President Roh Moo-Hyun on Friday named veteran career diplomat Ban Ki-Moon as his foreign minister in place of Yoon Young-Kwan, whom he ousted Thursday.

Yoon was forced to take responsibility for a highly publicized feud between foreign ministry officials and National Security Council members at the Blue House.

Roh sought to play down the internal battle over U.S. policy, which resonates powerfully with domestic political forces in South Korea where a recent poll found that more respondents considered the U.S. a greater threat than communist North Korea.

Roh had a friendly breakfast with Yoon, asking him for his advice on foreign policy issues, before announcing the appointment of Ban, who was his foreign policy secretary on the Blue House staff.

Blue House senior officials exercized spin control with foreign correspondents, emphasizing the seeming triviality of the dispute among bureaucrats and stressing continuity of policy. Ban's appointment seemed to underline that message in view of his background as a moderate who had served as vice foreign minister in the first year of the presidency of Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, in 2000 and 2001.

Ra Jong-Yil, national security adviser and director of the national security council, with which foreign ministry officials had been squabbling, said for the record, "There's not going to be much difference in our policy" and the intramural bickering was "not going to affect our alliance."

Indeed, he added, "I am sure it's not going to affect our allies or our friends."

But analysts said Yoon's dismissal signals a clear victory by Roh's National Security Council advisors over the foreign ministry in the months-long bureaucratic battle which has crucial stakes for the future of U.S.-South Korean relations.

The resignation came one day after the president's New Year press conference, in which Roh noted that some foreign ministry officials have expressed discontent with his foreign policy direction, especially toward the United States. Roh said those diplomats needed to be "relocated elsewhere in the ministry so as not to be obstacles to the president's foreign policy."

Ever since left-leaning Roh's aides at the National Security Council, including Lee Jong-Seok, began advising the president to take a more independent posture towards the United States in addressing North Korea issues, other foreign ministry officials who had emphasized the traditional alliance with the U.S. often and openly criticized the NSC members.

Lee said after returning from his first-ever visit to Washington late last year that he was surprised to hear from his counterparts there that some people in Seoul referred to him as a "Korean Taliban."

The disharmony between the foreign ministry "alliance group" and the NSC "independence group" peaked when the opposition party floor leader told the National Assembly earlier this month that "Kim Jong-Il supporters are the Roh supporters." It was subsequently revealed that a foreign ministry staff member had made similar remarks earlier.

Jeong Chan-Yong, chief personnel adviser to the president, announced acceptance of Yoon's resignation. He used the occasion to harshly criticize foreign ministry officials by saying "they repeatedly made remarks derogatory towards the president's foreign policy in private and in public and invited confusion and harmed the nation's foreign policy by leaking certain intelligence."

However, Blue House officials emphasized the continuity of policy at a time of sensitive talks among American, South Korean and Japanese negotiators on the next round of multi-lateral dialogue with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.

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