Learning from Roh
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The late President Roh Moo-hyun had the unusual ability to remain polite even in times of rejection. In Pyongyang, on Oct. 3, 2007, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suddenly proposed to his South Korean visitor they put off their summit to the next day and delay his return to Seoul by another day. When Roh did not answer immediately, Kim pressed him. “You’re the president. You can make such decisions. Can you not?” Roh returned to his composed normal self. “I can make big decisions. But it’s not up to me to decide smaller affairs.”
Buying time and embarrassing a counterpart is Pyongyang’s typical strategy in negotiations. Roh’s response was a subtle objection that even Pyongyang could not argue with. The dictator was a deity-like figure whose words could normally not be disagreed with. Roh’s ingenious wit confounded the absolute power of Kim’s words. At the same time, Roh accentuated the difference between a free democracy and a dictatorship. That symbolic scene is always a pleasure to look back on. In his memoir, Roh recalled that he responded in his normal style. “But looking back, my answer was a pretty good one,” he wrote.
President Moon Jae-in, who had arranged Roh’s summit with Kim as his chief of staff, revived most of the 2007 agreements that withered away under the following two conservative governments when he sat down with Kim’s son Jong-un in Pyongyang in October. Moon’s visit to Pyongyang and the results of his third summit with Kim did not please the conservatives. They were concerned about Moon’s aggressive push to reconnect with the North despite little progress in denuclearization. Roh did not compromise with the pride of his people and nation. That is how he was able to maintain equal footing with Pyongyang. Moon tried following in Roh footsteps, although he was not entirely successful.
Roh’s flexibility again shined in his final year. Toward the end of his term in 2007, he proposed to build a new naval base on Jeju. He cited the classic diplomatic axiom of arms-for-peace and Switzerland’s use of arms to ensure its peace and neutrality. Roh considered Switzerland’s defense sovereignty as a source of its neutral power. The Swiss did not trust the goodwill of their neighbors.
A naval base in Jeju can keep watch over the fleet movements of global powers. The strategic value of the naval base would be in intelligence. In October, Moon attended an International Fleet Review held in waters off the Jeju naval base. In an address, Moon emphasized two themes — strong defense for peace and consideration for the villagers of Gangjeong, who had to share their fishing town with the naval base. His address appealled to the villagers, who had engaged in a decade-long protest since the naval base project was announced. Moon did not ruminate on Roh’s arms-for-peace theory.
The North’s nuclear threat remains real. It can rattle its nuclear saber at any time. By not doing so, it acts as if it is granting us a great mercy.
The two Koreas held a groundbreaking ceremony for work on roads and railways at Panmun Station near Kaesong in North Korea. The railroads are in a state worse than they were in Japanese colonial days,when trains could travel up to 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour. The Pyongyang-Kaesong single-track railway has a maximum speed of 20 kilometers per hour. Ri Son-gwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, tried to hide his embarrassment over the poor state of North Korean rails.
The purpose of rail connections is liberalizing travel across the border to open the reclusive state. Free travel should ensure the economy of the inter-Korean rail system. Without it, the restored rails will just indulge a dictator. The envisioning of a single East Asian railway community can end up as delusion for the South Korean leader with the bill dumped on South Korean taxpayers. North Korean society remains strictly controlled. Moon’s aides cannot speak candidly with the North. Roh would have been more frank. “The railway won’t work unless residents can be allowed to travel without restriction,” he would have admitted.
Nostalgia for Roh continues. Kim Dae-hwan, an Inha University professor and former labor minister under Roh, recalled a meeting between Roh and labor leaders in 2004 at a time when the opposition was talking about impeaching the president. Roh bluntly told them, “Yes, you’re right, I have changed: I had to change while tending to everyday state affairs.”
Roh had angered both labor and the progressive front, and was accused of having betrayed them after he sought a free trade agreement with the United States. Roh also sought a balance between companies and unions. That balance is hard to find with the current liberal government. The economic slogan of the Moon Jae-in administration is “people-centered.” But ironically, the poor are suffering the most. The working class is hard-up. Merchants and the self-employed are pained more than ever. Former labor minister Kim said Roh did not fear a change in direction in governance. Roh’s leadership came from that courage.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 27, Page 35