The Right Question, the Right to Question: Thae Yong-ho Versus Lee In-young

On July 23, South Korea’s National Assembly witnessed a revealing—if to some unedifying—exchange. Two of Seoul’s most interesting political figures were at daggers drawn.

Thae Yong-ho (left) questions Lee In-young (right) during his confirmation hearing by the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on July 23, 2020. (Photo credit: YTN.)

Lee In-young was one. A former student activist, latterly parliamentary leader of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), the 56-year-old Lee was nominated on July 5 by President Moon Jae-in as the Republic of Korea (ROK)’s new minister of unification. He succeeds Kim Yeon-chul, who tendered his resignation on June 17, after North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. (Why a Southern minister should take the rap for an unprovoked act of aggression by Pyongyang is a mystery beyond the scope of this article.)

In South Korea, new ministers must undergo a confirmation hearing, although the president can ignore the assembly if it rejects the nominee. No chance of that. After a landslide victory in elections held on April 15, the DP now (unprecedentedly, in the democratic era) chairs all 18 parliamentary standing committees. These would normally be divvied up, but negotiations with the right-wing opposition United Future Party (UFP)—which holds 103 of the 300 seats, to the DP’s 176—broke down. So the liberal DP, somewhat illiberally, grabbed the lot.

The UFP had its say, if to no avail (Lee was confirmed as minister on July 27 despite the heated exchange) in the person of a star new recruit. Thae Yong-ho (now also known as Tae Ku-min), aged 58, was a senior North Korean diplomat: number two at the embassy in London when he defected in 2016. The UFP tapped him as candidate for the safe Seoul seat of Gangnam, whose wealthy voters duly returned him in April: the first defector to win an elected seat. (Lee, by contrast, represents Guro, also in southern Seoul: a former industrial district, more gritty than glitzy.)

Here is just a small part of their exchange.[1] For those who mourn the absence of Wimbledon this year, let’s score it like a tennis game. Thae serves first:

“I was a young follower of Juche ideology in Pyongyang back in the 80s. Back then I used to hear that student groups in the South, including the one you were the leader of, believed in Juche and worshipped Kim Il-Sung. Is that true?”

Lee: “That’s probably an exaggeration.”

15-love. Great serve by Thae; a rather fumbled reply by Lee. Thae presses his advantage:

“You know, ever since I’ve come to the South people keep demanding to know whether I’ve truly defected in terms of ideology…I want to ask you the same. Have you ever formally renounced the Juche ideology?”

Lee: “That’s not a fair question. Maybe they demand declarations of ideology in North Korea, but we have freedom of thought and conscience in the South.”

15-all. This time Lee returned the shot quite convincingly. And he has a follow-up:

“All I can say is that it sounds like you don’t totally understand how democracy works yet.”

Nasty, but effective. 15-30. Now Lee is on top, and Thae sounds flustered: “Look, answer the question. Do you believe in Juche or not?”

Lee slams right back: “The only places in Korea that would demand a declaration of ideology like that are North Korea and the old dictatorships in the South.”

15-40. It would need one more round for the tennis metaphor to work neatly, and their full back-and-to ranged more widely. But the result is clear: Game to Lee In-young. Set and match for that matter, since he is now in post as minister. Thae’s volleys were in vain.

Below the Belt?

Were they also below the belt? To many in South Korea and beyond, this line of questioning leaves a nasty taste. “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” is a baleful US catchphrase from the era of McCarthyism, still unforgotten and unforgiven by those accused and hounded. Reeking of witch-hunts, persecution and ideological conformity, such pressure gave short shrift to First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

On the peninsula, it was much worse. Americans might lose their jobs and careers, but under South Korea’s pre-1987 dictators, to be branded red could be fatal. Many innocents suffered torture or death. Most famously, future President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung, a lifelong Democrat, narrowly escaped being killed—judicially and otherwise—twice.

Moreover, as both Lee In-young and an outraged editorial in the left-leaning daily Hankyoreh noted, “ideological conversion” evokes specific bad connotations. In a practice inherited from Japan’s pre-1945 efforts against Korean nationalists, ROK dictatorships demanded that those accused under the National Security Act (NSA) formally recant and convert. Compliance might bring some commutation; refusal meant longer sentences and harsher punishment.

This sour history weighs heavily, as it should. It’s also true, as Jumin Lee notes, that Thae messed up: “This was ham-handed stuff and Lee played him more or less perfectly.”

Even so, in my view, Thae had a right, and was right (as well as Right) to ask such questions. They were pertinent, not impertinent.

First—does this really need saying?—North Korea is a hostile power with malign intentions, regularly restated and implemented, towards South Korea. That past ROK dictators abused this situation to persecute the innocent does not render the fact false, nor the threat hollow.

This being so, to be pro-North was and is no joke. In the West in 1968 and after, many of us played at being revolutionaries. For most this was a cost-free affectation. Not so in Korea, where the draconian NSA at once put you outside the law and at risk—just for opinions.

Idealizing the North

Despite this, pro-North sentiment grew strong in the ROK student movement in the 1980s and 1990s.[2] Hatred of military dictatorship—though this trend lasted well into the democratic era—plus militant nationalism and anti-imperialism fed delusions that the North was somehow the truer, purer Korea: unbeholden to others, and having broken fully with the colonial past.

One key organization propagating such ideas was Chondaehyop, a national association of student councils formed in 1987. Lee In-young was its first chairman. What was he thinking? What does he think now of what he thought then? Those hardly seem irrelevant questions to put to a person soon to take charge of South Korea’s entire policy towards the North.

To be sure, as Jumin Lee quipped, “Asking whether a 80s campus activist studied Juche in college is a bit like asking if he [sic] had any soju.” If this seems bizarre now, it testifies to how deeply Chun Doo-hwan was hated and his dictatorship’s propaganda mistrusted. With the lure of forbidden fruit, such leanings were a youthful rite de passage for many South Koreans of the so-called “386 generation,” who have since matured into solid and moderate good citizens.

If that were all, Thae’s questions would indeed be impertinent. But there was more. One of Lee’s successors as leader of Chondaehyop, Im Jong-seok, was jailed for three years in 1989 for arranging a high-profile illicit visit to Pyongyang by another activist, Lim Su-kyung. Lim is now a DP lawmaker, with odd views on who is a traitor. Im was President Moon’s pick as his first chief of staff—and has just been tapped as a special adviser on foreign policy.

Great Expectations—for Whom?

So Chondaehyop alumni are riding high in Seoul, to Pyongyang’s delight. Moon’s reshuffle in July of his national security team promoted several figures with Northern ties.[3] Previously a coalition balancing different views, Moon’s new Blue House advisers are now all militantly pro-engagement. “Buckle up,” commented former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Soo Kim. Pyongyang, by contrast, is delighted. One DPRK source remarked: “We have great expectations for Lee In-young and Im Jong-seok.”

That comment sounds positive for resuming stalled inter-Korean dialogue, which no doubt is Moon’s hope. But at what price? North Korea’s expectations are clear: No stick, plenty of carrot. They are probably right.

But that is to look ahead, and we are looking back. Lee In-young may be evasive about his philosophy, but he must sit somewhere—where, is the issue—on a long continuum which stretches all the way from, shall we say, Kim Young-hwan to Lee Seok-ki. Those starkly opposite poles each at least have a clarity which the new minister appears to lack.

To explain: Kim, another quondam student leader, was so pro-North that he actually visited Pyongyang—covertly, unlike Lim Su-kyong—and met Kim Il Sung. That disillusioned him. In a total U-turn, he switched his activism towards DPRK human rights, tortured by China for his pains.

Lee Seok-ki, by contrast, kept the faith—and pushed it to its logical conclusion. If you see the North as the true incarnation of the Korean nation and revolution, while the South is a US-backed reactionary epigone, then if the crunch comes and they fight, what do you do? Caught on tape in 2014 discussing plans for sabotage in such an eventuality, the leftist lawmaker was jailed for nine years for sedition, and his Unified Progressive Party (UPP) was shut down.

Lee In-young certainly isn’t Kim Young-hwan. And I don’t believe for a moment—unlike some—that he is anywhere remotely close to Lee Seok-ki. Yet there are legitimate questions and concerns. Let me use a personal example, in conclusion, to make the point.

My own initial interest in Korea, half a century ago, was ideologically driven. For a decade or more I was pro-North. I am ashamed of that. Unlike Lee In-young, I find it entirely fair to be asked what the hell was I thinking. I have tried to explain, which of course is not to excuse.

As I still write about Korea, people have every right to check whether my analytical judgment and moral compass alike have undergone the necessary repairs and are now in working order.

Lee In-young evidently feels otherwise. That’s his choice, and of course, his whole milieu and formation are very different. He’s Korean; I’m not. I wish him well in his new role. But I’d be more confident on that score, if only he had opened up about his political journey and how his thinking has evolved over time. Thae Yong-ho was right to ask—and he didn’t get an answer.

  1. [1]

    Thanks to Jumin Lee for translating this brief excerpt from their exchange in a Twitter thread, which starts here; and for linking to a much fuller Korean original, including video, accessible here.

  2. [2]

    For a nuanced account by a foreign participant-observer, Peter Schroepfrer, see his May 2019 Twitter thread starting here. He has commented with equal insight on the Thae-Lee exchange too, as I only learned after writing this article: that thread begins here.

  3. [3]

    Besides Lee and Im, the veteran politician Park Jie-won—a key figure in Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” policy, later jailed for illicit financial transfers to the North—was Moon’s surprise choice to head the National Intelligence Service (NIS), whose former chief Suh Hoon becomes Moon’s national security advisor. See: David Maxwell, “New South Korean National Security Team Has Close Ties to Pyongyang,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, July 8, 2020,

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