[OUTLOOK]Getting to know Mr. Roh, a littlePresident Roh Moo-hyun seems like a nice fellow. He invited me to the Blue House last week, shook my hand and after he discussed many of his problems for about an hour, he personally said good-bye to me. All this and to think I’d only been in Korea for a month.
It must be said I was in the company of a dozen foreign journalists who were also greeted warmly. Dressed in a sharp gray suit and muted red tie, Mr. Roh seemed open to talking about some of the most serious issues affecting his country.
A charming man, he was at times fairly funny about the predicaments he faces. In getting to know him, it was hard to imagine why he was having so many battles with the press.
He gave detailed and fascinating answers about North Korea, the U.S. request for troops for Iraq, anti-Americanism, Korea’s relations with other countries in Asia, and his problems with the National Assembly.
It would be good to report to you what he said. You would learn a great deal. My only difficulty is his staff won’t let me tell you what he said.
Before our meeting started no one from the Blue House said the discussion was off the record. Typically that means anything the president says is fair game, and nothing that was said was off the cuff, meaning there were no embarrassing surprises for the president.
That’s because his staff asked the journalists to submit written questions in advance so Mr. Roh could be thoughtful about his answers. He apparently did plenty of thinking because he took more than an hour to respond to just five questions that the journalists themselves would have considered “softballs.” Softballs in newspaper talk mean questions that are for the most part pretty easy to handle, especially for a president who had been addressing the same questions for weeks.
Since the Blue House forgot to tell me not to report the questions, here are some examples:
?How will Korea deal with the U.S. and growing anti-Americanism in Korea? (He was very thoughtful on that one ― at least 10 minutes worth. A Spanish editor sitting near me fell asleep.)
?What would happen if North Korea tested a nuclear weapon? (He didn’t want to say, but he did).
?How do you see Korea’s relations with the countries of Southeast Asia? (He was diplomatic about a boring question).
?What’s your current thinking about the National Assembly? (Mr. Roh made us all laugh with the answer.)
At the end of the hour, the president acted distressed, saying “I thought we would have a relaxed talk together, but this was the most harsh interview of my life.” (I can report this because Blue House officials said his concluding remarks could be made public.)
Worried that the English translation of his answers might not have captured his tone and substance, I asked a senior Korean news executive who attended the session if Mr. Roh spoke easily and well or seemed to be crude or as stiff as President George Bush often is. “No,” my colleague said, “in a situation like this, Mr. Roh is pretty smooth and charming.”
So while what the president told us that day will never be known publicly, it is safe to say he is not being particularly well served by his staff, who seem intent on shielding the real Mr. Roh from the public.
As for me, while listening to him, it was hard not to jump up, interrupt him and say “Excuse me, Mr. President, but why does your administration display the sensitivities of a Third World dictatorship when it comes to the press?”
Aggressive questioning would not be out of line, or it would not be in the United States and Europe. Mr. Roh might appreciate the bluntness.
The president’s own strong attacks on the media are well known. His staff has launched seven libel and civil suits against the media and even banned one leading paper from the Blue House. More than 120 complaints have been lodged.
The surprise is that I’m told many of the president’s press people are former journalists. If so, that’s too bad because they do our reputation no good. It’s clear that Mr. Roh needs a friend to advise him on the press.
To be fair, I did ask my foreign colleagues who were pre-selected to submit the pre-selected written questions if they wouldn’t take the opportunity to ask the president about his press relations. Bill Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune and Paul Kelly of the Australian looked at me as I were out of my mind.
“Why run from the fun?” I asked them. No answer, but they did roll their eyes.
Still this is not the journalists’ problem, it’s the president’s.
Here’s the difficulty: South Korea has a forceful, iconoclastic leader who can clearly and insightfully express himself on a wide range of important topics. So why not let him be heard? Why wait until after the president has spoken out to tell a bunch of foreign editors that “Oh, by the way, Mr. Roh was speaking off the record.” What’s the point of that?
Still, it was our first meeting, and it would have been impolite, I suppose, to offend him by doing my job and reporting what he said. Plus he kindly gave me a present.
Journalists are not supposed to accept gifts, but not wanting to be rude, I made an exception, rationalizing that there were cultural differences between us.
Inside the embossed box was a golden dragon head on a 30-centimeter-high golden stand. I had no idea what it was. Then l discovered that the head moved, and I pulled out what seems to be a letter knife. I hope the president writes a note to me on the record.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman