History is enriched

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History is enriched

There was heated controversy surrounding the memoir of former President Lee Myung-bak, entitled “President’s Time.” Critics said Lee failed to take into account the peculiar nature of inter-Korean relations and harmed the national interest, and that it was inappropriate for him to publish the book at a sensitive time. Others, however, said it enriched the historical record.


A historian who served as the head of the National Records Management Committee during the Roh Moo-hyun administration said many presidential records were likely to be designated as confidential and people who access them should be given authorization to handle the top secrets. “We must find out if the people who accessed the presidential records of Lee had the authority or not,” he said in an interview.

Unless they are still serving in the government, they probably didn’t have the authorization, he argued. Furthermore, some argued that those who accessed the records should be identified and their illegal actions should be investigated.

The view is absurd, but is commonly felt.

Authorization to access top secrets is not given to a former president, not to mention his aides. But Article 18 of the law governing the presidential archives guarantees the former president and his designated aide access to his own records. Although it seemed contradictory, the law is a special law and it doesn’t interfere with other laws. Therefore, a former president or his designated aide can access the records on his presidency, separately from the authorization to handle confidential material.

The debate surrounding Lee and his aides’ right to access to his own archive, therefore, should be stopped. If a former president wanted to use the records of his presidency without asking for access, he can take the entire archive home and we have seen the precedent.

The controversy also talked about who leaked top secrets of the country. A memoir by a former leader is often created based on his and his aides’ memories. That was how Lee’s memoir was created. But to verify the memories, an archive should be accessed. Lee and his aides probably accessed the archive a couple times for confirmation. To improve the accuracy of his memoir, he should have accessed the records more often. The memoir is not based on records that could have caused a grave threat to national security.

Of course, there are things that must be left out even from a memoir of a former president, but that decision is up to him. That is why Lee’s memoir is controversial. But the memoir happens to be a very boring book, which left out almost all sensitive issues at home and abroad. It fell far below expectations and it is not satisfactory. But there is a common practice, followed by foreign leaders, that subsequent parts will be published later. Lee will probably publish a sequel. The next memoir will produce more debates. But that is natural and we should welcome it, because our society’s historical database will be broadened by the move.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this memoir was the behind-the-scenes stories about the failed attempts to arrange an inter-Korean summit. Many parts were already made public by the media. During Lee’s presidency, he faced severe criticism for not having an inter-Korean summit, and it was natural for Lee to provide an answer in his memoir. It is actually positive that he did not push for a summit merely for popularity through unreasonable and humiliating backdoor dealings.

Critics should not try to inflame the public with factually wrong reasoning. And they should read memoirs of other foreign leaders. They actually discuss more sensitive and volatile issues than Lee’s book. Korea alone is engaged in an unproductive debate over a former president’s memoir and this will only discourage former leaders from making their experiences public. A large part of the latest controversy is nothing more than a political fight. We must improve our standards to establish a productive culture on the memoirs of our leaders.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.


*The author is professor of modern history at Myongji University.

by Kang Kyu-hyung

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