[Viewpoint]Managing state secrets

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[Viewpoint]Managing state secrets

Kim Dong-hyeon, known as Tong Kim in the United States, worked for the U.S. Department of State for 27 years and served as a Korean interpreter for four U.S. presidents - Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who is in his last year in the White House. When I was a correspondent in Washington D.C. in 2005, Tong Kim used to tell me behind-the-scenes stories about Korean and U.S. leaders from time to time.

In one of his stories, Chun Doo-hwan came to Washington after he stepped down. President Reagan, whose term was almost over, asked Chun, “How do you feel now that you are retired from the presidency?” But it seemed Chun did not feel that he was not a president any more. Maybe he thought that he could still exercise power because Roh Tae-woo, his military academy classmate, succeeded him.

Instead of answering the question directly, he said, “When you retire, I will convene a meeting of retired presidents, including you, myself and Prime Minister Nakasone of Japan. We will surely get along well. Leave it to me.”

But far from having a meeting with the three conservative political veterans, Chun had to go on exile to the Baekdam Temple not long after the conversation.

It was a pity that I alone got to hear these juicy stories, so I suggested to Tong Kim to write a series for JoongAng Ilbo’s “Retrospective Tales.” His first piece started with the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chairman Kim Jong-il of North Korea’s National Defense Commission in Pyongyang in 2000.

The story was extremely interesting, and I was sure the series would be a smash hit. I had received four articles when Tong Kim suddenly called, saying that the Central Intelligence Agency was very particular about his writing, and he was sorry, but the articles could not be published.

That was when I first learned that U.S. civil servants who had dealt with confidential information have to go through precensorship by the CIA when they publish a book or write an article for publication. It was frustrating, but I envied the strict national intelligence management system of the United States. That the president and the vice president had to testify to special prosecutors about leaking the identity of a covert CIA officer is something that we cannot expect here.

But I am taken aback by the controversy over presidential records between the Blue House and Bongha Village. This is what happened based on claims that have been made so far.

When Roh Moo-hyun left the Blue House, he told president-elect Lee Myung-bak’s staff to take over the records. And the new administration responded that they did not need them. When Roh said that he would be taking some of the data his office had been using, President Lee agreed. However, when President Lee actually took over the Blue House, Roh reportedly had taken everything, including confidential records on weapons systems and details of the North Korean nuclear negotiations.

I am speechless at the ruling party’s explanation that they had a hard time appointing ministers and vice ministers because not a single personnel record was left behind. The Lee Myung-bak administration has disappointed the people more than once, but this time, it crossed the line. You are not so careless even when you take over a small deli. It is solely the Lee Administration’s fault that it failed to take possession of all necessary data.

Moreover, it should have tried to retrieve the records as soon as it learned the data was missing in the early days of the administration. The Blue House hushed it up to avoid criticism at first but made it public when the administration was cornered by the candlelight vigils. There is no misunderstanding here.

Similarly, the explanation from Bongha Village is not convincing. President Roh claims that he took the files as reference for his memoir, but the records are confidential and cannot be disclosed anyway. Furthermore, what do the personnel records on tens of thousands of high ranking government officials, journalists and businessmen have to do with a memoir? What right does he have to keep the personnel files of individuals? What will Roh do if the individuals file a lawsuit?

The case is actually more serious. The personnel files must include records of high-ranking military generals and executives at the National Intelligence Service. If their identities are revealed by any chance, there would be serious damage to the national interest.

How about the North Korea strategies of Korea and the United States? The locations of missile divisions and military tactics in case a war breaks out? Bongha Village argues there would never be such a leak, but can they really guarantee it?

Former presidents are national assets and deserve respect as the elders of the nation. However, the national interest must come before pride or the authority of any former president.

*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Chong-hyuk

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