How MB came to give a poorly timed speech

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How MB came to give a poorly timed speech

When a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier at the Mount Kumgang Resort, the report to then-President Lee Myung-bak was delayed one hour and 40 minutes, leading to an ill-timed speech by the president that day.

At 11:40 a.m., on July 11, 2008, Um Jong-sik, a presidential secretary for the unification minister, knocked on the door of the office of Kim Sung-hwan, then-presidential secretary in charge of foreign affairs and national security.

“A female tourist from the South was shot by a North Korean soldier and died,” he reported. Secretary Kim confirmed the fact repeatedly through the national spy agency and the military.

However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a different report. It said that North Korea asked the South to open the gate to the Demilitarized Zone, because an ambulance needed to transport a body to the South.

So an official of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked an immigration official at the border region about why the woman had died, and the immigration official reportedly said she “probably died from a disease.”

However, the National Intelligence Service, the chief spy agency, made a correct report later.

“But it is not true that the delay was because of the erroneous report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which some media said at the time,” a former Blue House official said.

It was because of the presidential secretary office, the official said.

“Secretary Kim delivered the message to Chief Presidential Secretary Chung Jung-kil,” the official said. “And Chung allowed Kim to report it to the president. However, when Kim called the president’s office, a secretary said he ‘is taking a break’ at the time.

“So Kim delayed making his report until after lunch time,” the official said.

Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo that he can’t remember the situation specifically. He said it was 1:20 p.m. when he reported it to the president finally.

However, the problem was that the president was supposed to deliver a speech at an opening session of the National Assembly at 2:20 p.m., in which he would suggest inter-Korean talks with North Korea. The speech was part of his previous plan to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The Blue House immediately convened an emergency meeting to decide whether they would go ahead with the original speech or revise it, in wake of the shooting incident.

Some reportedly said they should change it. However, they finally decided to maintain it.

Kim Doo-woo, then-secretary for political affairs, said, “At around 1:40 p.m., I was informed of the news. I suddenly thought the address should be revised, in this horrific situation. But my opinion was not accepted [at the meeting].”

As a result, President Lee faced criticism over his untimely suggestion for dialogue.

President Lee also caused controversy over his attitude toward a delegation from North Korea.

Basically, Lee decided he wouldn’t offer a “warm reception” or provide humanitarian assistance if North Korea doesn’t change its politics and nuclear weapons program.

One of the opportunities to highlight his position was the visit of a North Korean delegation led by Kim Ki-nam, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, on Aug. 21, 2009.

The purpose of their visit was officially to pay condolences to late leader Kim Dae-jung, but in fact, their real object was to meet with President Lee and propose an inter-Korean summit.

The South was aware of the real purpose. So the delegation expected Lee to greet them as they arrived, in person. However, the Lee administration told them to first meet with then-unification minister, Hyun In-taek.

The North accepted and met with the minister on Aug. 22.

“On the morning of Aug. 22, Kim Yang-kon, a department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, asked Hyun to arrange a meeting with the president again,” another former Blue House official said. “But Hyun said he needed to check with the Blue House and asked them to have dinner with him.” So they stayed one more day.

Finally, on Aug. 23, they were allowed to meet with Lee. The Lee administration sent a rental car to bring them to the Blue House, not a state-owned luxury sedan.

When the North Korean delegation entered the Blue House, they had to go through a security checkpoint that ordinary citizens use. When a security guard told them to take out any “hand phones” (Konglish for cell phone), they misunderstood the word as “hand” and showed their real hands, which embarrassed them as a result.

This poor treatment of the North Korean delegation caused a debate over Lee’s attitude. Some say it was desirable for the regime’s defiant acts, and others say it was a diplomatic gaffe.


By Ahn Hee-chang, Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]


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