Lee Jong-sup, defense minister nominee for the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol government, speaks at a news conference held at the presidential transition committee headquarters in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Lee served as a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before he retired from the army. The defense minister nominee also led a Combined Defense Transformation Group under the JCS, whose task is to prepare for the envisioned transfer of wartime operational control or OPCON and set out a road map on the South Korea-US combined defense posture.
The president-elect said Lee “contributed greatly to the South Korea-US security alliance” while serving the role. Yoon expressed his expectations that the defense minister nominee will “closely coordinate with allies while establishing strong national security and powerful defense capabilities.”
Lee “has been also recognized for his outstanding expertise in military operations and in the field of defense planning,” Yoon explained, adding he “served in a number of key posts at the JCS.”
The nominee also reportedly engaged in working-level negotiations of the Security Consultative Meeting between South Korea and the US, when he served as a deputy head of the then-policy planning department at the Defense Ministry during the Lee Myung-bak administration.
Lee was in charge of US policy at the ministry’s office of national defense policy before then. He earned his doctorate in international politics from Tennessee State University on the subject of the South Korea-US alliance.
Yoon has promised to strengthen the South Korea-US combined defense posture and interoperability between the two forces and enhance the extended nuclear deterrence from the US.
Lee said he “handled a lot of tasks with regard to the South Korea-US relations” during a televised news conference held Sunday.
The defense minister nominee also pledged to simultaneously strengthen the South Korean military’s independent capabilities and the US extended deterrence against North Korean threats, labeling them as the “two axes” of South Korea’s strategies to respond to North Korea.
Lee said it is “very significant” for the South Korean military to “reinforce its independent capabilities to deter North Korea.” But at the same time, the nominee said South Korea should seek to “make the most of the US deterrence” against North Korea.
The nominee in March suggested that he would bring back the large-scale joint military drills in his interview with South Korea’s Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper.
Lee argued that the South Korea-US military relationship had become an alliance “in name only” under the Moon Jae-in administration, as both sides have canceled or scaled down the joint drills, which are the ”most important part of the military alliance.”