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Lessons from Roh

The late president said he was tortured by advice from three foreign affairs experts.
June 22,2017
U.S. Senator John McCain’s cancelled visit is causing controversy. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported that the Blue House did not confirm McCain’s request for a meeting. The Blue House denied the report and said the visit was cancelled because McCain had schedule issues. The presidential office said President Moon Jae-in had planned to meet Senator McCain for a luncheon on Sunday, May 28.

When McCain met with a Korean special envoy on May 19, he said he wished to visit Seoul on May 27 and 28 and meet Moon. The message was conveyed as the president debriefed the envoys to the United States, China and Japan on May 24. National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong also attended. It is uncertain when, between May 24 and 28, the Blue House informed McCain about the luncheon plan. McCain eventually skipped South Korea and visited Australia, Vietnam and Singapore after requesting to confirm the schedule.

The Blue House could have been falsely accused of mistreating McCain, as the president cannot meet with every American politician requesting a meeting. But McCain is different. A major figure friendly towards Korea, he said that the United States needs to pay the costs of Thaad deployment.

Since late May, however, the Blue House seems to have become stiffer. The discussion of Thaad has even been shunned after President Moon said he was shocked at the defense ministry’s allegedly arbitrary omission from details in its Thaad report. After the designation of Ahn Hyun-ho as the senior secretary for job creation was withdrawn, the so-called “appointment code” became more obvious. Lately, the pro-distribution group is gaining force in the Blue House Policy Planning Office while the so-called “self-reliance” group is rising in foreign policy and security staff. I am concerned of the trap of “group thinking.” I hope Senator McCain’s unrealized visit was not an outcome of reluctance to be seen as “pro-American” by arranging the meeting with McCain.

The two foreign visitors to the Blue House on May 31 suggest the atmosphere. U.S. Senator and Minority Whip Dick Durbin met with Moon for 40 minutes. But the Blue House briefing did not include his comment that he would like the Thaad budget to be used elsewhere if South Korea does not want it. Durbin said that he felt bad as he had to worry about the USFK as he left the Blue House.

Former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri seemed satisfied after being cordially received. The Blue House briefing was also friendly. After having serious discussions on normalizing inter-Korean relations, Moon said that her contribution would lead to good outcomes as she had helped facilitating the inter-Korean summit for former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Megawati responded that she would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and asked if it was okay to deliver Moon’s greetings. Moon said that she could tell Kim what they discussed in the meeting, virtually asking her to play the role of a messenger.

It is not surprising. Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who was close to Kim Il Sung in the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s. The Kim Il Sung Flower is a gift from Sukarno. As Megawati frequented North Korea in childhood with her father, she and Kim Jong-il had been “siblings” for 40 years. In 2002, Megawati visited both South and North Korea. When President Roh met with Megawati on March 4, 2005 and told her that he would like to meet Kim Jong-il if he was invited to Pyongyang, Megawati returned with a reply from Kim.

During the election campaign, Moon said he could visit North Korea before the United States if elected, and they may not have been empty words. Close aides should know what’s on their boss’s mind. Perhaps, his foreign policy and security staff read how Moon felt about the Korea-U.S. alliance and inter-Korean talks. They might have thought Moon was eager to meet Megawati, giving less importance to McCain’s request.

In retrospect, President Roh Moo-hyun was different. In late December 2002, then president-elect Roh met with former Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo at a safe house in Seoul. Though they were affiliated with different parties, Roh respected Lee as an expert in foreign policy and unification. After listening to what Lee said, Roh replied, “As inter-Korean relations are very important, I was advised by my foreign policy staff to keep a distance from the United States. Yet, I concluded that the U.S. is the most important country to South Korea now. Am I right?” Lee continued to say, “Your judgement is precisely correct. Inter-Korean relations and our relationship with China are all built on a solid Korea-U.S. alliance.”

Roh’s track record reflects the shift he chose later on. While he said, “What’s wrong with anti-American?” he sent troops to Iraq, signed a free trade agreement with the U.S. and promoted a naval base in Jeju. Former Prime Minister Lee said that he was not surprised by Roh’s decisions. Former foreign minister Han Seung-joo wrote in his memoir that Roh said he was tortured by advice from three foreign policy and security officials with different ideological backgrounds: National Security Council Secretary General Lee Jong-seok, National Security Advisor Ra Jong-yil and Foreign Policy Advisor Ban Ki-moon.

Roh received advice from experts with different views. Hopefully Moon will be inspired by President Roh.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 21, Page 31

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Chul-ho