Presidential records are not private

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Presidential records are not private

It feels truly frustrating to see the continuing controversy surrounding the inter-Korean summit back in 2007. Allegedly, President Roh Moo-hyun told his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il that he does not recognize the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea as an actual border. Politicians are attacking each other over whether there is a transcript of the dialogue between Roh and Kim and over whether the transcript includes such a remark or not. It is lamentable that an issue associated with the sovereign boundary of the territory surfaced five years later and that politicians are using such a grave matter in such a lowbrow way.

The NLL is a maritime border in an area in which the two Koreas have had sea skirmishes. In that area, the North sank the South’s warship Cheonan at the cost of the lives of 47 men in uniform. These are the waters surrounding Yeonpyeong Island, which the North shelled in 2011, killing four people. Of course, politicians may have different opinions on how to prevent further tragedies of these kinds by proper border management. It is absurd that we do not know if the issue was addressed during the inter-Korean summit, and if so, what was discussed.

A smooth transition is a common sense desire, even for a takeover of a small neighborhood shop. Let’s say a grandmother in the neighborhood came to the store to buy apples. She buys a bag, but two are rotten. The store owner promises he will give two apples when a new shipment comes in. The next day, the grandmother goes back to the store and asks the new owner to give her two apples. What would happen if the new owner does not know what she was talking about?

It is only natural to expect smooth transition between administrations. A president has a five-year term, but South Korea will continue on. Just because an administration is new doesn’t mean the government is new. Let’s say wrong tax rates were imposed in the past and we paid excess taxes. What if the government said it has no responsibility because it took place during a previous administration? Diplomatic agreements are, of course, upheld even though an administration changes. Just because a president’s term ends, agreements can’t be just wrapped up and stored in a safe. The information does not have to be handed over to the new administration for the sake of consistency, for the sake of the country. That is why “bipartisan diplomacy” is stressed at all times.

Did President Roh go to Pyongyang without knowing what his predecessor, President Kim Dae-jung, said during his inter-Korean summit? What would have happened if a third inter-Korean summit took place during the Lee Myung-bak administration? If the records of the dialogues between the two leaders in the two past summits were sealed as “confidential presidential records,” placed inside a safe and allowed to be opened only 30 years later, the outcome is easy to guess. President Lee would have struggled to understand the context during the summit and deserved the North Korean leader’s ridicule for his ignorance.

Presidential archives are created to ensure thorough documentation and to prevent distortion and destruction. They are also intended to stop the next administration from using the documents politically. But the basic principle is “thorough collection and management” of information.

Contents of the presidential archive are the government’s assets. They are not private properties of the presidents. Enough information should be provided to the next administration. If there are secrets to remain untold, the next administration should manage them as confidential.

At the end of the Roh administration, the transition team of then President-elect Lee had troubles with the Blue House on taking over tasks. While Roh aides insisted that they gave enough information, Lee aides said they received too little. Let’s postpone our judgment on this issue.

But a transition of the state affairs does not end by passing on a few pieces of papers. The subtle nuances that were not included in the documents should be passed down as well, or else the government will suffer a loss in future negotiations. We cannot call a president a true leader if he wants his successor to fail just because the successor is from the opposition political side. When information is hidden from political rivals, the national interest will suffer and the people will be the losers in the end.

It is also astonishing to see that not all materials in the presidential archives are sealed. While the records of President Kim’s summits are all available through the Internet, including 39 inter-Korean summit documents, all of the summit records of President Roh are sealed by his order. Even a list of documents is sealed, so it is impossible to know what’s in storage. Roh made sure that they cannot be opened for at least 10 years - or in some cases up to 30 years. The period of the sealing is decided by the president. It is hard to understand for whom the archive was created and what he was trying to hide.

Furthermore, issues associated with the country’s territory are not something the president can decide alone. The Constitution stipulates that all treaties concerning security and the limits of sovereignty must be approved by the National Assembly. Of course, a dialogue during a summit is not a formal agreement. But if it concerns such an important matter, he should have informed the National Assembly after the summit - and preferably before the summit. He could have held a closed-door briefing at the National Intelligence Committee or the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee. Or he could have briefed just the heads of the ruling and opposition parties.

Korea elects a new president every five years. If all of them store the records of their administrations and seal them for the next 30 years, who can possibly guarantee continuity in the government? We cannot have a government that stops every five years.

* The author is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook
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