South Korea’s New Minister of Unification, Cho Myung-gyon

Who Is he?

Cho Myung-gyon took office as South Korea’s 39th Minister of Unification on July 3, 2017. He was nominated by President Moon Jae-in on June 13 and approved by the National Assembly on June 29. Minister Cho replaced Hong Yong-pyo, who had previously held the office from February 17, 2015 through May 10, 2017.

Cho is a veteran government official, having served in the Ministry of Unification (MOU) for 28 years. In his previous positions within the MOU, Minister Cho participated in two inter-Korean summits during the administrations of former President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007) and President Kim Dae-jung (1998–2002).

In the Roh administration, Minister Cho served as Secretary of Unification, Diplomacy and Security in the Office of the President from March 2006 to March 2008. As President Roh’s secretary, he played a key role in planning the second inter-Korean summit in October 2007.

As Director General of Business Support for the Kaesong Industrial Complex from October 2004 to February 2006, Cho oversaw the opening of the complex and the ongoing operation of the industrial facility. Prior to that position, Cho led the Office of Planning for the Light-water Reactor Project as a Director General for Policy Coordination from February to October 2004. From July 2001 to February 2004, Cho served as Director General for the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Bureau at the Ministry of Unification.

During the Kim Dae-jung administration, Cho was Deputy Director General for the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Bureau for two years from June 1999 through June 2001. Cho also served as Director for the Humanitarian Division I, Humanitarian Assistance Bureau between December 1996 and March 1998.

Between March 1995 and December 1996, Cho served as Executive Officer to the President for Unification in the Office of the President. Prior to that, he was a Director for the Cooperation Division in the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Bureau from November 1994 to March 1995. From July 1991 to November 1994, Cho also managed the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Bureau as a Director for the General Policy Division.

Minister Cho received a B.A. in Statistics from Sungkyunkwan University in February 1979 and an M.A. in Public Administration from Seoul National University in February 1981.

Why Is He in the News?

On June 29, 2017, the National Assembly approved Cho as the 39th Minister of Unification. During a press conference on the same day as the Ministers’ approval hearing, National Assemblyman Choi Kyung-hwan, a member of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said “it is difficult to find any major ethical lapses from Cho.” Assemblyman Kim Moo-sung, a member of the Bareun Party, also stated Minister Cho has “impeccable morality.”

On July 6, 2017, two days after North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), President Moon Jae-in revealed his vision for improving inter-Korean ties during a speech at the Koeber Foundation in Berlin. During a parliamentary briefing for the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on July 10, Minister of Unification Cho stated that inter-Korean communication is essential for the “safe management” of bilateral affairs.

What can we expect from him?

His 28 years of service in the Ministry of Unification have equipped Cho with ample experience in negotiating with North Korea and a deep understanding of the Moon administration’s inter-Korean policies. In his appointment acceptance letter, Cho stated that inter-Korean relations had not changed much in the past nine years, while external circumstances surrounding the Korean Peninsula have undergone significant changes including North Korean leadership, North Korean nuclear and missile threats, the international community’s involvement in the Korean Peninsula, and the people’s perceptions of reunification with North Korea. Many of the external circumstances are intertwined and increase the complexity of the problem.

Cho’s appointment reaffirms Moon’s focus on engagement with North Korea and re-invigoration of inter-Korean relations. On June 29, during a press briefing after the National Assembly’s approval of his nomination, Cho said his ministry would do would do its best to hold a reunion for separated families as soon as possible before August 15. He also said he is open to using all channels of communication to engage the North. In addition, Cho strongly supports reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and promised that the government would actively look into providing additional support for the owners of firms in Kaesong who suffered losses from the closing.