Not in the national interestThere 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.
Former President Lee Myung-bak issued an 800-page, 12-chapter memoir. Of them, seven chapters were focused on inter-Korean relations and foreign and security affairs. Although it is meaningful to actually confirm some of the rumored incidents, the decision to reveal extremely sensitive diplomatic issues and the timing of the publication are regrettable.
First, Lee was giving subjective accounts about his conversations with leaders of neighboring countries and inter-Korean affairs. The memoir said North Korea, during Lee’s presidency, made tens of proposals for an inter-Korean summit and begged for it to be arranged. It also laid bare sensitive conversations between Lee and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao about the Korean Peninsula.
The memoir largely defends the decisions of the Lee government. Although each administration can have a different view on how to handle the North, the book trumpets Lee’s ideas. That will likely affect the current government’s diplomacy with other countries and inter-Korean relations too.
Second, it brought about a controversy on how far a former president can go in revealing confidential information. The memoir laid bare secrets and endangered North Korea policy in the future. For example, the memoir wrote that a top intelligence official from the North secretly visited the South in December 2010, shortly after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. The official tried to meet with Lee, arguing that he was carrying a message from Kim Jong-il, then the North’s leader, but failed. The memoir said he returned two days later and was eventually executed.
Such a detailed revelation will only provoke the North and will seriously limit the scope of activities for the North Korean officials who will handle inter-Korean affairs in the future.
North Korean officials will not try to actively engage in talks with their South Korean counterparts if their remarks will be revealed publicly. Secret conversations with the leaders of China were revealed and Chinese President Xi Jinping won’t probably want to have candid conversation with the Korean president as a result.
Seoul’s North Korea policy will face difficulties because of the memoir’s revelations, and the diplomatic discourtesy committed by the book will become an issue in the international community. Although Lee might not have broken any law, it is regrettable that he did not make a careful approach based on a calculation of the national interest and the special nature of inter-Korean relations.
Third, the timing of the publication is also an issue. What good will it do when the former president lays bare sensitive behind-the-scenes stories of inter-Korean relations and foreign affairs only three years after his retirement? Most parts of the memoir were to justify what Lee did during his presidency. It seemed like a book to serve Lee’s political goal.
Winston Churchill, former British prime minister, wrote his memoir over six years starting in 1948. It helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil said he won’t even write a memoir. He is probably a better role model.
Fourth, Lee’s argument that he wrote the memoir to make public the historical truth is also problematic. If a lie or exaggeration is recorded in the former president’s memoir, it will actually distort the history. Recalling memories of inter-Korean relations and diplomacy is particularly important.
Some past presidents had argued that they will let history judge their policies and the success of their administrations when the public disagrees with them. But the public and history do not evaluate them highly. Can we have a president’s memoir that is brutally objective yet consciously valuable as a historical record?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University.
By Kim Yong-hyun
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