[OUTLOOK]Now apologize for a lame apologySo it was $500 million, not $200 million or $357 million, that went to North Korea, and it was unconnected to the summit, although eerily coincidental. The payments were not wrong, because they were for “peace and the national interest.” Never-theless, President Kim Dae-jung said, “For my part, I feel wretched and am in pain.” So he apologized ― for “causing deep concern to the Korean people owing to the controversy.”
I wish President Kim would just admit that he did what he had to do to get Kim Jong-il into the same room with him. It would not tarnish his Nobel Peace Prize. Great leaders do what they must to get great deeds done, and history judges them. In that year, 2000, Mr. Kim, nearing the midpoint of his administration, needed a breakthrough for his “sunshine” policy, and he got it.
Bribed his way to a Nobel Prize? Lubricated the North’s military machine? Nonsense. Who can possibly doubt the sincerity and determination of Mr. Kim’s efforts for reconciliation with the North, however one assesses their effectiveness?
Was the payment illegal? Yes, any way you look at it. “National security” sometimes may require secret or extralegal measures, but not every invocation of national security stands up to skeptical inquiry. During the Watergate scandal of 1973-1974 President Richard Nixon insisted that “national security” justified burglary, but it turned out that what he meant was his own re-election justified it.
When extralegal measures can withstand history’s judgment, they shouldn’t be prosecuted. The national security case is strong for the payment to the North, if we regard it as a bribe for a summit. Everybody knows that Kim Jong-il is a nasty man, and dealing with him is a dirty business. President Kim held his nose and dealt.
But the president and his men insist that it wasn’t a bribe for a summit. They say it was a secret business investment by Hyundai, using taxpayer funds.
Why do they insist on putting the worst face on it? If the payment was a government handout to give a favored jaebeol a head start over other Korean businesses in North Korea, every scoundrel who had anything to do with it belongs in jail ― starting with President Kim.
Mr. Kim claims to have gotten wind, just before the summit, that Hyundai had paid Pyeongyang for exclusive concessions on seven projects in the North. “There were some legal problems,” he said, but the government “accommodated” the payments for the sake of national security. Does this mean that “national security” is defined as “what’s good for Hyundai”?
“Accommodated” in Mr. Kim’s dextrous formulation appears to mean “ponied up the cash.” A government bank supplied some of the money to Hyundai, and it has not been repaid. Do all Korean companies get to draw secretly on government funds to pursue their business interests ― sorry, the national interest ― or only Hyundai? What happened to this word “transparency” that Mr. Kim so tirelessly incanted for five years?
Let’s try to explain to Mr. Kim and his strategists why his absurd self-justification is far more damaging to his presidential reputation than a direct acknowledgment would be. A bribe-for-summit President Kim can be seen as a far-sighted leader who sets a great goal and moves toward it with determination. But a President Kim who “accommodated” law-breaking by Hyundai emerges as one more conniving manipulator in a long line of Korean presidential disappointments.
Koreans grumble about the “Korea discount” that they think undervalues the stock prices of Korean companies. The Hyundai transaction, if we accept President Kim’s remarkable explanation, shows why investors are wary. They don’t know whether Korean firms are guided by business or political considerations. They don’t know which companies enjoy government favor and private access to the public treasury, and when that favor may be withdrawn. The National Intelli-gence Service, no less, helped Hyundai exchange the won for the dollars the North wanted.
Apologies are a curious custom in Korea. A Korean professor once explained to me that an apology provides a formal way for someone to “lose face” and thereby satisfy the other party’s honor. President Kim certainly lost face. But he apologized for the wrong thing. Instead of being sorry for “causing concern,” he should have apologized for the lameness of his apology.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper