A life devoted to reconciliationStiff-necked officials from North and South Korea were gathered around a conference table at the Panmunjeom truce village in April 1984. In the midst of the Cold War, the mere fact that both sides had agreed to meet face-to-face was almost a miracle in itself. But this miracle did not go well.
The official subject of these working-level talks was dispatching a united Korean team to the 1984 Summer Olympics, but the issue was hardly mentioned. Instead, the talks turned into a verbal firefight, at one point involving a flying matchbox.
“We don’t shake hands with the bloodstained,” one North Korean official said, referring to then-South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan’s military regime and its brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Gwangju in 1980.
Flushed with tension, the negotiators hurled propaganda and abuse at each other. “Down with Kim Il Sung’s dictatorship in the North,” a South Korean official cried out. “You’d better watch your mouth,” shouted a North Korean. “We demand your apologies now!”
Then a North Korean picked up a matchbox and threw it across the table. A South Korean picked it up and threw it back at him. Not surprisingly, this conference didn’t improve the inter-Korean situation.
“It was a war,” recalls Lee Jong-riol, 57, who was present as the director of South Korea’s South-North Dialogue Office. Mr. Lee believes that this off-the-record conference could have led to a second Korean War.
In his more than 30 years as an expert in North-South talks ― or, as he prefers, South-North talks ― Mr. Lee has been no stranger to tension and tugs-of-war.
Soon after he joined the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (now the National Intelligence Service) in 1972, Mr. Lee was assigned to the South-North Dialogue Office, under the Ministry of Reunification. Last month, he retired as the office’s director. For Mr. Lee’s entire professional life, North Korea has been both an enemy and a constant companion.
“Mr. Lee was the driving force behind the talks between the two countries,” says Lim Hyun-jeong, an assistant director at the South-North Dialogue Office. “He simply wouldn’t stop until everything met his high standards.”
Over the course of 445 inter-Korean talks since 1971 ― ranging in importance from numerous “working level” staff talks to the summit of 2000 ― Mr. Lee has remained unknown to the public. “I guess I remained true to the motto of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency ― ‘Live in the Dark, Bound for the Sun,’” he says, smiling.
Dealing with aggressive and provocative North Korean officials was not easy (he jokingly attributes his hair loss to the stress). The job was a dangerous one, especially when North Korea was not hesitating to use terror against South Koreans, as in the 1983 bombing of the Aung San National Cemetery in Burma and the 1987 downing of a KAL jet. “I guess I should be grateful for being alive now,” Mr. Lee says.
As a living witness to the history of inter-Korean talks, Mr. Lee is not ready to end his life’s work. He plans to work for non-governmental organizations dealing with North Korean issues, or to teach classes in North Korean studies.
If he does teach, his classes are likely to be full of vivid anecdotes, such as the “sea of flames” incident of 1994. Almost a decade later, Mr. Lee’s voice still rises when he discusses it. In the midst of a discussion, Park Yeong-su, a North Korean representative, said, “You all know that Seoul is not so far from here. If a war breaks out, Seoul will be a sea of flames.” That was the end of the talks, with North Korean members walking out of the Room of Peace at Panmunjeom.
“Back then, South and North fought for the fight’s sake,” Mr. Lee says.
Mr. Lee would burn the midnight oil before negotiations, screening documents and holding rehearsals. “There are just so many issues to be thought over, from protocol to the topics of the talks,” Mr. Lee says. Though he gained a reputation as a tough boss, he soon found that it wasn’t enough.
“During the talks, the North Korean side was always so glib, while we would stumble from time to time,” Mr. Lee says. Once during a smoking break, Mr. Lee went up to his counterpart and asked, “So how many rehearsals do you have? We do it about five times.” The North Korean official smiled and said, “That’s not so impressive. We rehearse at least 20 times.”
On his home territory, Mr. Lee could feel more assured. “In a talk held in Seoul, North Korean officials would take a unusually friendly attitude,” Mr. Lee says, “They would give us hugs, with vigorous handshakes. Only then I could accept them as brothers.” In Pyeongyang, however, the North Koreans would be imperious and unfriendly.
“But we’ve never given in,” Mr. Lee emphasizes. “There has been criticism, especially in regard to the sunshine policy, that the South is always giving and yielding, pushed by the North. But it’s simply not true, for it’s actually a tactic to get what we want in the long run.”
Mr. Lee says the best day of his life was June 15, 2000, when then-President Kim Dae-jung and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met face to face in Pyeongyang. Mr. Lee was in Seoul at the time; when the two leaders clasped hands, he felt the happiest he’d ever felt.
The bribery scandal that has since emerged over those talks has dimmed that moment for some, but not for Mr. Lee. “Bribery is of course against the law, but, it was, at the same time, unavoidable,” he says.
North-South talks should be held more often, he says. “The relationship between the two countries has greatly improved. In the 1970s, it was nothing but a tug-of-war, which thawed a bit, starting from working-level talks in the 1980s and the 1990s, until the summit talks in 2000.”
Did any kind of friendship ever form between Mr. Lee and North Korean officials over the decades?
“In the talks, you have to be aware that it’s a grim reality that you’re faced with,” Mr. Lee says. “But I was indeed glad to see my counterparts whose faces became familiar over the years, though I did not show my feelings.”
Mr. Lee’s dream, of course, is reunification of the two Koreas, which would mean the closure of the office to which he gave his professional life. Mr. Lee and North Korean issues have become bound up with each other. When he dies, he says, he wants his remains to be buried on a hill near his office in Samcheong-dong, central Seoul.
by Chun Su-jin