South Korean Opposition Seeks Ouster of Unification Minister

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

The Liberty Korea Party (LKP), the primary opponents of President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party of Korea (DP), on Wednesday called for Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon to be fired because he violated South Korea’s constitution by circumventing parliament to promote joint projects with North Korea.

The opposition also criticized Cho for getting the upcoming inter-Korea summit approved in a Cabinet meeting without ratification by parliament.

Yonhap News quoted a statement from the LKP saying Cho’s actions disregarded the constitutional requirement for “parliamentary consent in clinching and ratifying treaties or legislation that would incur a massive fiscal burden on the nation or the people.”

LKP is, by extension, accusing President Moon himself of disregarding the constitutional prerogatives of the legislature by ratifying treaties without parliamentary approval.

LKP further criticized Cho for excluding reporter Kim Myeong-seong from the press pool for an inter-Korea meeting at the border village of Panmunjom two weeks ago.

Kim, who works for the conservative paper Chosun Ilbo, is a defector from North Korea whose writing has been highly critical of the regime in Pyongyang. The Unification Ministry cited his history with the North Korean regime as one of several reasons for excluding him from the press pool.

The decision brought heated criticism from South Korean conservatives, North Korean defectors and their advocates, the entire South Korean journalistic establishment, and international press freedom advocates.

Cho expressed regret for the decision and suggested he had been excessively cautious about antagonizing the North Korean delegation by inviting Kim. He admitted the North Koreans themselves raised no objections to the reporter’s presence.

Last week Cho met with groups representing North Korean defectors to “smooth ruffled feathers” over the Kim Myeong-seong affair, as Kim’s paper Chosun Ilbo put it. Feathers were promptly ruffled again when the Unification Ministry held the meeting behind closed doors and refused to identify the defectors’ representatives who were present, fueling suspicions Cho was only willing to meet with groups that enthusiastically supported the Moon administration. Some advocacy groups for defectors have called on Cho to resign.

On Wednesday, opposition leaders criticized Cho for failing to respond to “rude” comments from his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon, who for some reason decided to insult South Korean business leaders over a bowl of noodles while they were visiting Pyongyang.

The Korea Herald recounted the curious details of Noodlegate, as Americans would undoubtedly christen the incident:

Ri’s remark — made over a bowl of naengmyeon noodles during the latest inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang — was disclosed Monday when Liberty Korea Party Rep. Chung Jin-suk questioned Unification Minister Cho about it at an Assembly interpellation session.

“In the last event at the Okryugwan restaurant, where the conglomerate chiefs were invited to have naengmyeon, Ri put on a serious face and said, ‘how does naengmyeon go down your throats?’ Who would say such a thing to their guests?” Chung asked.

The remark is roughly equivalent to “How can you eat at a time like this?”

“I believe Ri used such strong language to tell them off,” Chung said. “It’s not a joke, it’s deliberate and strategic. Don’t you think you should do something about it? I think you need to point their rude language out at least once.”

Cho actually admitted his response to the incident was “insufficient” and promised to do better in the future, but LKP leaders insisted “national pride has been seriously damaged.” A running theme of conservative criticism of the North Korean peace process has been the sacrifice of national dignity made in President Moon’s rush to improve relations.

A previous unification minister worried in a Tuesday radio interview that Cho will undermine Moon’s agenda by allowing the North Koreans to insult South Korean business leaders until they become unwilling to do business with the Communist regime.

Democratic Party of Korea leaders responded by saying the Liberty Party is obsessed with trivialities and merely “throwing a tantrum” by calling for Cho’s dismissal, as floor leader Rep. Hong Young-pyo said at a party meeting on Wednesday.

The DP insisted there were legitimate reasons for bypassing the legislature to quickly ratify important deals with North Korea and argued Cho has appropriately apologized for mistakes such as excluding the reporter from the Panmunjom meeting.

“The LKP’s real intention is apparently to hamper peace on the Korean Peninsula by any means,” Hong charged, comparing the opposition’s actions to unnecessary roughness in a sporting event.

“The party should stop its move to find fault with what the government and the ruling party are doing unconditionally,” he demanded.

The LKP holds 112 of 299 parliamentary seats, which was good enough to meet the one-third threshold for recommending removal of a cabinet official. Passing the proposal with a majority vote will be more difficult, and in any event, President Moon is not legally obliged to dismiss the unification minister even if the motion passes.

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