[Viewpoint] By your friends you will be knownWhen right-winger President Lee Myung-bak took leftist writer Hwang Suk-young aboard the presidential jet to Central Asia he was sending a significant political signal to both Pyongyang and Korean citizens. In essence, Lee was saying, “Hwang is a notable pro-Pyongyang figure and a favorite of Kim Il Sung. Even so, I am open-minded enough to have him as a friend.”
The president was also sending a message to Korean citizens. “I am not a conservative to the exclusion of all else,” he was saying. “I can embrace the leftists. So, more people can support me without feeling like a sellout.” Will this message be conveyed successfully?
In one case, the jury is no longer out. As soon as the president returned home, Pyongyang threatened to close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex. With that move, Hwang was shown to have little influence on Pyongyang.
But rubbing shoulders with intellectuals with brilliant literary imaginations will certainly help the president expand his thinking. While intellectuals get svicarious experiences from books, the president can expand his experiences through direct contact with intellectuals. In particular, a rightist president with little experience dealing with North Korea can learn from a leftist intellectual with personal experiences in communicating with Pyongyang.
However, there are conditions for such a friendship to be productive. First, the president has to be focused. He needs to have a solid identity and extract experience and ideas from his new intellectual friend. And the friend has to be respectable. Be he a leftist or a rightist, his character should be noble enough to be respected by citizens if he wants to board a presidential jet.
This isn’t so for Hwang Suk-young. Hwang went to North Korea for the first time in March 1989. Not a year and a half had passed since Pyongyang’s terror attack on a Korean Air jet. Many South Korean workers returning home from the Middle East were killed in the bombing. The victims include over 60 employees of Hyundai Construction, where Lee Myung-bak was the chairman.
The Republic of Korea had successfully hosted the Summer Olympic Games the year before and was struggling to make another leap amid the outcry of students and workers. While the remains of the terror victims were still floating on the waters of the Bay of Bengal, Hwang enjoyed a feast and rode on the shoulders of North Korean officers in Pyongyang.
Kim Il Sung is a war criminal who started the Korean War and killed millions of fellow Koreans. Hwang contributed to Kim’s memoir for his 80th birthday, using his literary resume to dignify the late North Korean leader. When Hwang ran away to the United States in 1992, he had described Kim Il Sung as “one of the heroes on par with General Uljimundeok, Admiral Yi Sun-sin and King Sejong.”
He is free to choose his ideology. However, whether he is a poet or a writer or a musician, he should not forget the country that provided the material foundation for him to enjoy freedom. Thanks to young factory workers who worked overtime making wigs in the 1970s, Hwang could write “Jang Gil-san.”
The same applies to composer Yun I-sang. When the people in his country were fighting against armed infiltrators and working day and night to make more dollars, he received royal treatment in Pyongyang, talking about his “art world.” I have never heard Yun make a sincere apology to his nation. Hwang served five years in prison, but it is doubtful he felt truly apologetic to the Republic of Korea.
Hwang can help his friend Lee Myung-bak only if he is a serious thinker worrying about his country and the times. If he is an artist who does not know pain and is only driven by literary imagination, the president’s sincerity appears misplaced. If the president wanted to try politics in the exclusive presidential airplane, he should have thought first of the conservatives who helped him become the president. On the way to meet foreign leaders, he should have had these old friends onboard instead.
Writer Lee Mun-yeol has been persecuted by leftists, having his books burned. Conservative activist Seo Jeong-gab defended the Korea-U.S. alliance from attacks by extreme leftists. As the country was stirred by the candlelight vigils last year, Lee Myung-bak deplored the chaos of national identity. Now, conservatives are concerned about the identity of the president.
When he was the mayor of Seoul in 2004, he became friends with Hwang in New York during the World Culture Open event. Such an exchange at a personal level should be different from the politics of a president.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin