The last interview
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Chinese people like to use “lao [old] peng you [friend]” to express closeness and familiarity with others. But leaders are more discreet in using “lao” to outsiders to save it for exceptionally trusted and highly venerable people who could be counted on for help at times of trouble, unwavering loyalty or advice and inspiration. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had acted as a midwife to the diplomatic normalization between Washington and Beijing, or former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who took the initiative to forge diplomatic ties with China, make up a selective group who earned the “lao” title. No South Koreans became “lao peng you” to Chinese leaders. Former President Park Geun-hye could have come closest when she joined a few heads of state to watch the controversial military parade in Tiananmen Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — if bilateral relations had not soured afterwards.
Lee Sei-kee, a former lawmaker and unification minister who passed away last week, was a rare South Korean who was treated as a “lao peng you” by China. He kept up relations with China’s veteran diplomats from 1985 — seven years before the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1992. While serving as the head of the Korea-China Friendship Association, he built connection with Chinese leaders Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Li Peng to act as a go-between Seoul and Beijing.
I interviewed him twice earlier in this year. We promised to extend our conversation. I wished to put on record his experiences and insights on the Korea-China relationship. Here is one.
South Korea and China clashed in 2004 after Beijing on its Foreign Ministry website referred to the Goguryo Dynasty (37 B.C. to 668 A.D.) — Korea’s ancient kingdom nestled across the present-day northeast China — as one of its ethnic minority dynasties. China also deleted the Goguryeo section in its introduction to Korea on the homepage of its Foreign Ministry. In August that year, then Unification Minister Chung Dong-young came to Lee for help as the government had limits in dissuading Beijing. A few days later, Lee flew to Beijing and sought help from then vice head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China.
When he could not convince the Chinese host, Lee warned that Seoul might have to rethink the planned visit by Jia Qinglin, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, due to negative public sentiment in South Korea. “I wasn’t in the position to speak for the government, but I had to do something to persuade China,” he recalled. The threat worked. When the host began to listen, Lee suggested that both governments leave the historical affairs to scholars. He was told his suggestion would be relayed to President Hu Jintao and the Foreign Ministry. Jia arrived in Seoul, and Lee was invited to be seated at Jia’s table when President Roh Moo-hyun held a welcome reception.
The episode that took place 16 years ago offers precious lessons today. According to the advice, one should be frank with the Chinese first even if it won’t be pleasing to them. In the longer run, one can earn trust as the Chinese won’t open up to pretentious people. Second, there are many roles the non-government sector can play on behalf of the government. There should be no political differentiation based on ideology. The Roh government sought a conservative on the opposition front for help. When it is related to state affairs, ideological differences cannot matter.
South Korea has lost a valuable asset in bilateral relations with China after Lee’s passing. Korea-China relations are at a stalemate. It is a pity that I cannot hear more stories from Lee. May he rest in peace.