Lee’s memoir proves dangerous

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Lee’s memoir proves dangerous

“He’s gone way too far,” a high-ranking policy maker said of former President Lee Myung-bak’s memoir, “President’s time.”

The senior official’s remark not only reflects the Park Geun-hye administration’s sentiments but also speaks for the concerns of the public, who want inter-Korean relations to escape from the long, dark tunnel in which they have been mired.

The memoir details the secret negotiations between the two Koreas over the five years of Lee’s term as if they were an adventure. The chapter on North Korea seemed like a justification of the Lee government’s North Korea policy, which was based on the denuclearization and openness of Pyongyang in return for economic assistance from the South to increase the North’s per capita income to $3,000. It also seemed like an excuse for worsened inter-Korean relations, largely due to the Cheonan warship’s sinking in 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island at the hands of Communist state.

The description of secret negotiations in Singapore between then-Labor Minister Yim Tae-hee and Kim Yang-gon, the director of the Unified Front Department in North Korea’s Workers’ Party, is a classic example of Lee’s “thoughtlessness.”

In the memoir, he states that the North demanded 100,000 tons of maize, 400,000 tons of rice, 300,000 tons of fertilizer and $10 billion in capital to establish a state development bank, so the talks fell through. By omitting context, Lee writes as if the North unreasonable demands.

But the North’s demands, in fact, had already been presented to the South in return for fulfilling Seoul’s long-sought request that South Korean abductees and POWs in North Korea be allowed to visit their hometowns.

The $10 billion request was actually intended for South Korea to help the North attract foreign capital in order to establish a development bank when a summit was realized and inter-Korean relations were improved.

Lee’s description of Kim is particularly dangerous. Kim is one of the key officials in Pyongyang’s inner circle who support inter-Korean dialogue. In his memoir, Lee writes that Kim begged Yim for an agreement, saying, “I will be killed if I return without an accord.”

Depending on what Kim Jong-un thinks, this could actually drive Kim Yang-gon off a cliff. Even if Kim Yang-gon manages to survive this situation, it is easy to imagine that North Korean negotiators will take an extremely cautious approach in future talks with the South - whether they are secret or open - in order to prepare for a possible recurrence of a similar situation.

North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, 2010. And shockingly, Ryu Kyong, the deputy director of the State Security Department, an agency equivalent to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, visited Seoul on a secret trip on Dec. 5, 2010 - less than a month after the incident.

Although Ryu demanded a meeting with President Lee, he could not get one, and had to return to Pyongyang. He and his family were executed in early 2011.

In the memoir, Lee writes that Ryu was executed because he failed to meet him. But many North Korea experts argue that Ryu died because he fell into a trap set up by his biggest rival, Jang Song-thaek. It is extremely disappointing that the former president’s memoir provides such a poor, ungrounded explanation for such an important incident.

The most senseless part in the memoir was perhaps the description of Lee’s conversation with Wen Jiabao, who was then the Chinese premier, during a dinner on Jan. 10, 2012, in Beijing. Lee told Wen he was worried about the North’s future because Kim Jong-un was a young leader would likely run the country for 50 or 60 years. “But would that go with the flow of history?” Wen was quoted as replying.

Lee writes, “I understood his remarks to mean that we won’t have to be patient for too long concerning the North’s future.”

It’s grave that even the Chinese premier was skeptical about Kim Jong-un’s grip on power. It leads us to wonder what Wen’s reaction would be if he read the book.

This goes far beyond breaking diplomatic courtesy. This is a matter of trust for the highest leader of this country and the nation’s prestige.

After the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, Lee stated that the collapse of the North Korean regime was only a matter of time. And he often claims that Kim Jong-il, then the leader, was begging for a meeting. And yet, the Lee administration continued secret contacts to arrange a third inter-Korean summit. So how should we understand this contradiction?

A nation’s president must never forget the weight of a single word and carefully consider the aftermath, conceptually and strategically. Lee’s memoir deserves criticism in that he failed to have that sort of consideration.

Whether the parts on the North are objective or not, it is highly concerning, and could potentially affect the Park government’s North Korea policy.

Senior official’s lament that “he went way too far.”

In the United States, President Barack Obama publicly stated that he would bring the Kim Jong-un regime to an end.

But if Kim’s power is maintained through the balance between the doves in his party and the hawks in the military, then Obama’s stance and exposure in Lee’s memoir are more than enough to empower the hawks in Pyongyang.

Are we seeing an anti-North alliance between Obama and Lee? At the beginning of this year, President Park Geun-hye and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un both stated their intent to improve inter-Korean ties. They must not be dispirited by Lee and Obama’s offenses.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 6, Page 31

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie

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