There’s something about Ri
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The provocative remarks made by a senior North Korean official over lunch in Pyongyang last month continue to stir controversy in South Korea. On Sept. 19, Ri Son-gwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, allegedly asked leaders of South Korean conglomerates, “Do the cold noodles go down your throat?” over lunch.
In Korean, the expression scolds one for being too comfortable, and in this case was meant to critique the business leaders for the slow progress in inter-Korean economic cooperation. The comment was allegedly made while the South Korean delegation was eating a bowl of Pyongyang-style naengmyeon (cold noodles) at the famed Okryu Restaurant.
After the episode, Rep. Hong Yong-pyo, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party, said, “I have checked with Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) Chairman Park Yong-maan and three or four tycoons on the same table, but Ri did not made the alleged comment.”
During the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Chairman Chey Tae-won, LG Chairman Koo Kwang-mo, Hyundai Motor Vice Chairman Kim Yong-hwan, Korea Employers Federation Chairman Sohn Kyung-shik, and KCCI Chairman Park sat at the same table for lunch. Hong said he talked to three or four of the tycoons, and so failed to check with one or two of them.
“How dare you eat more cold noodles when you didn’t do anything?” Ri reportedly told the tycoons with a smile, according to a report from MBC. The MBC report seemed to support Hong’s argument, but the comment actually seems more insulting than the earlier remarks. It was unclear what messages the report tried to deliver: it refuted Hong’s line that Ri made no controversial comment at the lunch. Regardless of what was said, it became clear that Ri insulted South Korean tycoons and used sarcastic language with them. Rep. Chung Jin-suk of the Liberty Korea Party asked Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon during the National Assembly audit on Oct. 29 about Ri’s comment, and Cho confirmed it.
The South Korean public is in agreement that something has to be done about Ri. Although some members of the ruling party and the administration are trying to treat Ri’s remarks as fake news or a bad joke in order not to provoke North Korea, public opinion will only continue to sour. Chung Se-hyun, a former unification minister and a mentor of President Moon Jae-in, lamented that “As South Korea is a country of public opinion, inter-Korean dialogues and investment in the North will become impossible now. Moon is in a tough spot. Public opinions is so bad that it will ruin inter-Korean relations.”
National Intelligence Service Chief Suh Hoon said, “We must do something about it. It is an issue that we must investigate.” Suh must not give up his intent amid some powerful people’s attempts to downplay the episode.
The incident cannot be brushed off as an irresponsible act by a senior North Korean official who became successful by handling inter-Korean relations. He demonstrated the North Korean leadership’s mindset that “We have nuclear weapons, so you must behave carefully. You have to provide economic support for us.”
Moon should demand that his counterpart Kim Jong-un take proper action with Ri. Kim is scheduled to visit South Korea before the end of this year, and he may not receive a warm welcome if he ignores public opinion.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 5, Page 30