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General-turned-lawmaker tapped as defense chief

Sept. 13, 2023 - 15:33 By Kim Arin
Ruling Party Rep. Shin Won-sik speaks to The Korea Herald during an interview on May 16 at his office at the National Assembly building in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Rep. Shin Won-sik of the ruling People Power Party was nominated as the minister of national defense on Wednesday. He is a former three-star general with 35 years of military service who built an extensive experience in both policy crafting and operations.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s chief of staff Kim Dae-ki said in a briefing on this day he was the “most qualified candidate to complete building South Korea’s security capabilities against escalating nuclear and missile threats."

“He has extensive experience in policy design and operations, having served in key positions in the Defense Ministry and in the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the presidential chief of staff said.

Speaking to The Korea Herald shortly after his nomination was announced, Shin stressed his determination to create a “military that can win.”

“(If appointed) I am determined to build a military that is capable of fighting the enemy and winning, as it is supposed to,” he said. “That is the role of the military and what we owe to the people.”

Shin entered the National Assembly through proportional representation in the 2020 general election. He is one of a handful of incumbent lawmakers who came to politics from the military.

Before making his entry into politics, the 65-year-old former army general found himself in the limelight for openly criticizing then-President Moon Jae-in’s push to declare an end to the Korean War and policies appeasing North Korea.

As the executive secretary for the National Assembly’s national defense committee, he has been vocal in expressing his views about the Yoon administration’s foreign policy and national security strategies.

Notably on the war in Ukraine, he argued for the South Korea’s active support for Ukraine -- including military assistance -- departing from the administration’s more cautious stance. He is a proponent of the country’s closer alignment with the US, Japan and other “free world” allies.

At the Assembly, he authored bills on defense readiness and weapons modernization, including one supporting research and development of space weapon systems. In November last year, he led a resolution condemning North Korea’s ballistic missile provocations.

He served as the director of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013-15 and then as its vice chair in 2015. He is an alumnus of the elite Korea Military Academy, having graduated in the same class as the conservative former President Park Geun-hye’s younger brother.

Shin, if he succeeds in passing the hearing by the Assembly whose majority is controlled by the Democratic Party of Korea, would be replacing Lee Jong-sup. Lee offered to resign on Tuesday following calls from the opposition that the president fire him over accusations he orchestrated an alleged cover-up of the death of a missing marine soldier.