Lee Myung Bak, Pragmatic Moderate? The Way We Were, 2007

Kim Man Bok on the front page of the January 10, 2008 edition of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In 1962, Decca records turned down the Beatles, saying guitar groups were on their way out. A few years later, the teenage Janis Ian’s manager rejected an offer for her to headline at some unknown gig in a muddy field in upstate New York; so Janis never got to play Woodstock.[i]

And then there was Kim Man Bok. On December 18, 2007, a day before South Korean voters swung right and elected Lee Myung Bak as their new president, the ROK’s then spy chief (director of the National Intelligence Service, NIS) popped across the border and drove up to Pyongyang—those were the days—for a chat with his DPRK counterpart, Kim Yang Gon.

The latter’s opaque title—Director of the United Front Department in the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)—belied the fact that both Kims essentially had the same job: to keep tabs on the other side. Kim Yang Gon was, and still is, Kim Jong Il’s point man on South Korea. Kim Man Bok was the main man on the North for the South’s then president, the late Roh Moo Hyun.

The pair knew each other well. Kim Man Bok was Roh’s key fixer in arranging the second inter-Korean summit, held in Pyongyang two months earlier. And in the brief Indian summer of North-South contacts which followed this, Kim YG had visited Seoul less than three weeks earlier, on November 29. (He toured shipyards and factories, which raised some eyebrows.)

But now the wind was changing… or was it? Never a man to hide his light under a bushel—quite a flaw in an intelligence chief—Kim Man Bok took it upon himself, surely exceeding any brief he may have had, to reassure the North it had nothing to fear. By then it was clear that an unprecedented decade when liberals for the first time held power in Seoul was at an end. All polls showed the conservative Lee Myung Bak winning by a landslide, as indeed he did.

But what kind of conservative? Kim Man Bok was pretty optimistic. Here’s what he said, as quoted in a leaked transcript by the leading Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo on January10, 2008[ii] (The leak, and the trip, forced his resignation a week later, though Roh took a month to accept it):

Inter-Korean relations have moved smoothly after the second inter-Korean summit. Even if a new administration takes over in the South, it will go well… Tomorrow it is almost certain that the Grand National Party’s Lee Myung Bak will win. However, the GNP’s North Korea policy will not change much. It is for reconciliation and cooperation. Furthermore, Lee is very capable of persuading the conservatives, so his administration may be able to push forward a stronger engagement policy than the Roh administration.

And guitar groups are on the way out. Rarely was an intelligence forecast so utterly wrong. Yet Pyongyang took it seriously. With rare restraint, DPRK media held fire on Seoul’s new leader for over three months, even as he tried (but failed) to abolish the unification ministry (MOU), and gave other hints—both before and after formally taking office on February 25—that on North Korea this self-styled moderate pragmatist was, in fact, an old-style hardliner.

On April Fool’s Day, the North finally broke silence—and then some. A lengthy commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the WPK daily, attacked Lee Myung Bak as “a vicious political charlatan and imposter” and pro-U.S. sycophant for subordinating inter-Korean ties to wider diplomacy and linking this to denuclearization and human rights. The article named Lee 49 times, in the first direct insult of an ROK leader by the DPRK since 2000. The rest, as they say, is history.

Kim Yang Gon is lucky to have kept his job, and indeed his head. Other top DPRK officials identified with the “sunshine” era have suffered in the dark night that followed. As vice-chair of the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC), Choe Sung Chol was also very visible in late 2007. It was he who welcomed Roh when, in an unforgettable moment, the South’s president got out of his car and walked across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into the North.

But in 2009, Choe was reported as banished to a chicken farm or perhaps even executed. Did he share Kim Man Bok’s delusions about Lee Myung Bak? Presumably Kim Yang Gon did not—or was just better connected. In Pyongyang, backing the wrong horse may prove fatal.

Yet it was an error many made. An ex-Hyundai CEO and mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung Bak was suspect to many on the right. So much so that Lee Hoi Chang, the GNP’s twice defeated presidential candidate in 1997 and 2002, emerged from retirement to run as an independent against him; eventually polling a respectable 15% of the vote, yet far behind Lee Myung Bak’s 49%. (The liberal standard-bearer, ex-unification minister Chung Dong Young, took just 26%.)

Why did Lee Hoi Chang do this? It was a high-risk strategy. His own first defeat in 1997 had been due to just such a move by a certain Rhee In Je, the man he beat to the GNP nomination. The disgruntled Rhee then ran as an independent, splitting the Right and handing a slim victory (by 1.6%) to the veteran dissident Kim Dae Jung, at his fourth and surely last attempt to win power. Otherwise there might have been no sunshine policy. By such flukes is history made.

Yet despite that bruising experience of losing, a decade later Lee Hoi Chang himself was the splittist—because he just did not trust his namesake. As The Economist put it at the time, in his view

…North Korea should get no aid whatsoever until it has completely abandoned its nuclear programmes. He [Lee Hoi Chang] also argues that the past decade of leftist rule has endangered South Korea’s alliance with the US and weakened the economy—and that on these issues, too, Lee Myung Bak plans to sell out conservative voters by favouring policies that are in effect indistinguishable from those of the current government..[iii]

As misjudgments go, this is up there with Kim Man Bok. Three years on, Lee Hoi Chang’s worries look laughable—but the situation on the peninsula is not funny at all. A second article will look at what Lee Myung Bak could, and in my view, should have done instead in his Nordpolitik.

[i] He also lost her the chance to score The Graduate, and more. But she did get to meet a cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover at a party. See the great Janis’s bittersweet but hilarious article on her website: “Monumental Mistakes,” http://www.janisian.com/reading/monumental.php

[ii] “Secret pre-vote spy talks sought to calm North; Undercover visit meant to assure Pyongyang on Lee’s intentions.” JoongAng Daily, January 10, 2008. http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2884935. Several subsequent articles on this saga can also be found by searching “Kim Man-bok” on the same website.

[iii] “Conservative split: A surprise entry into South Korea’s presidential race.” The Economist, November 9, 2007.  http://www.economist.com/node/10122027.

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