How Moon blew it

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How Moon blew it

The controversy over whether the late President Roh Moo-hyun offered to ignore our sea border during private talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during a 2007 summit in Pyongyang has been brewing for a year now. Let us review the trajectory of the scandal.

When the allegation first surfaced ahead of the presidential election last December, the faction loyal to the deceased liberal president in the opposition Democratic Party vehemently denied it. Former Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung denied that the topic of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border since the war, ever came up during the summit. Former Director of the National Intelligence Service Kim Man-bok insisted that there had been no taped record of the confidential conversation between the two leaders.

They both were proven liars after the NIS declassified and released the full transcript of the taped conversation from 2007. At the time, about half the population believed the top spy agency made a serious mistake in disclosing highly confidential state documents and agreed that even though the former president might have been overly eager to return home with substantial results from his visit to Pyongyang during his last few months in office, he had not meant to surrender the NLL to North Korea.

The argument should have stopped there. The pro-Roh faction failed to recognize that the basic public response was that the late president had been somewhat indiscreet during the summit. It misinterpreted the rise in the approval rating of President Park Geun-hye, the result of the consistency and conviction of her North Korea policy, and thought it was coming at the expense of the honor of the deceased president.

Roh’s loyalists counterattacked. On June 30, DP lawmaker Moon Jae-in, who competed against President Park as a presidential candidate and who personally organized the 2007 summit in his role as Roh’s chief of staff, demanded access to the original transcript of the meeting at the National Archives to prove that the NIS transcript was faulty. He vowed to retire from politics if Roh had offered to surrender the NLL. The DP supported the move.

But when the transcript was not found at the National Archives, Moon lost his footing. He said that the crux of the issue - Roh’s comments on the NLL - had little to do with the whereabouts of the transcript. He suggested that politicians end the wrangling. But that spark started a different fire. The focus shifted to the possible destruction and cover-up of the transcript. Moon’s colleague in the DP, Park Jie-won, complained that Moon should have seen the ramifications of this fight before he picked it.

Moon continued dodging after the prosecution announced preliminary findings on the case earlier this month. The prosecution concluded the original transcript was not kept by the National Archives. It was also convinced that the final (i.e. revised) copy of the transcript was saved in the digital archives of the presidential office, but the original draft was erased. Then Moon reiterated that there had been a taped record of the dialogue and that Roh had not said anything implying that he would surrender the NLL. He did not have an explanation for the mysterious disappearance of the transcript from the National Archives. The non-Roh faction in the DP changed the subject, vowing to concentrate on improving voters’ lives, pulling away from the Roh loyalists.

The transcript case is a sure loser for the main opposition party. But the DP cannot back down. The NIS claims it has an audio file of the inter-Korean summit conversation. The Roh faction is in disarray. It had a year to investigate and come up with a strategy. But it kept on making suicidal moves. Either Moon is utterly misguided or he has not talked the issue through with his buddies from the Roh administration.

The faction remains paranoid and resentful toward the ruling party and argues that every twist and turn is the conservative government’s old habit of resorting to anti-North Korean sentiment to turn political situations to its favor. It should ask itself if it is not bound up in time-worn dogma from the days of student activism, blindly believing what it pursues is just and that the other side has to always be wrong.

The Roh camp may be at a critical turning point. It rebounded from Roh’s tragic suicide four years ago. But it faces an existential crisis over the NLL transcript. The DP has turned its back on the Roh faction. There are some who sigh in relief that Moon was not elected president last year. Moon may have dug his own political grave. The legacy of Roh is on the verge of extinction.

Society has grown weary of the protracted bickering over the NLL transcript. Moon and the DP are desperately seeking a way out. But confession must come first. They must apologize for all the havoc they have caused. The story would end well if the ruling and opposition jointly declare their commitment to defend our maritime border. Moon should answer not to the Saenuri Party or the prosecution but to the public. That is called duty.

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

by Lee Chul-ho
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