More Than Mere Brouhaha: A Response to Lynn Turk

Dmthoth / CC BY-SA

Never a dull moment in Korea. Events have moved fast on the peninsula—if not for the better—since I last wrote in these pages. Compared to dramatic inter-Korean developments on the high seas of late, the topics discussed here might seem of merely academic or historical interest. Not so, as I shall endeavor to show towards the end of this article.

Having been kindly granted a right of reply, let me say first that I welcome Lynn Turk’s commentary, The Thae-Lee Brouhaha: An American Diplomat’s Perspective, on my article, The Right Question, the Right to Question: Thae Yong-ho Versus Lee In-young, published in August. I am glad on two counts. First, Turk adds valuable wider context to my own more narrowly focused piece. And second, because debate is always a good thing.

That said, I’m intrigued as to why my article, unusually, was deemed so controversial as to require such a rejoinder. Did I cross a line? Is it dangerous ground to raise pertinent questions about the political odyssey of a South Korean minister? In free societies, one would hope not.

Yet there are sensitivities in Seoul. “Used to dishing out the criticism, they seem unwilling to take it.” Thus The Economist on August 20, à propos quite another matter. Their column was headlined: “South Korea’s liberal rulers unleash their inner authoritarians.” This isn’t news to this website, which in 2018 had to hastily find a new home after Moon Jae-in’s government cut off all the funding for its original base, the US-Korea Institute (USKI) at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), forcing USKI to close. While the reason given was alleged lapses in accounting, the real motives appeared political.

Anyway, kudos to 38 North for upholding academic freedom. I welcome this opportunity to continue the discussion. Before responding to Lynn Turk, let me clear up a misunderstanding which was raised on Twitter. To reiterate: The exchange between Thae Yong-ho and Lee In-young, as presented in my earlier article, was just a short extract from a far longer whole. I thought I made that clear. Like Jumin Lee, whose summary I credited, I believe this précis accurately summarizes the issues at stake. Readers can judge for themselves by perusing the full original transcripts in Korean, to which I supplied links. There is too, as I wasn’t aware when I wrote, a full English translation by Tara O,[1] which also includes excerpts from the National Assembly’s afternoon session the same day when the questioning of Lee In-young continued. All this makes fascinating, rewarding and revealing reading. I’d love to add my own further detailed comments on many aspects arising, but we would be here all day.

Retuning to Lynn Turk, we agree on much. Like him, I admire the courage of the students who took on the military dictators and won democracy. Indeed, I envy his contacts with that movement in the late 1980s: A momentous time to be living in Seoul. As a mere visitor, on my fourth trip in 1989, my to-do list of essential experiences included going to a megachurch and getting tear-gassed—albeit not at the same time. Both boxes duly got ticked. Lim Su-kyung[2] was even then on her infamous Pyongyang jaunt, so no prizes for guessing what the Yoido Full Gospel Church made of that. “Lord, save this nation which is heading for communism!” cried Pastor Cho. “Amen!” chorused the faithful. Seriously? Then as now, South Korean conservatives can be exceedingly silly.

Turk correctly notes the domestic political context of Thae’s intervention. The opposition did indeed fare badly in April’s parliamentary elections, but “tsunami” seems overstated. The main conservative opposition—now named the People Power Party (PPP), after yet another rebranding—still holds over one-third of the National Assembly’s seats (103 out of 300). Indeed, in the national vote for the 43 seats selected by proportional representation, the PPP’s predecessor actually beat Moon’s ruling Democrats (DP), by 9.4 million votes to 9.3 million.[3] Since then, the gap has narrowed: In mid-August, an opinion poll put the conservatives ahead for the first time in four years, with 36.5 percent support as opposed to 33.4 percent for the DP, though they have since fallen behind again. So indeed, there is everything to play for in future elections.[4]

Thae Yong-ho wanted to make his mark in conservative circles, and he pressed the right—the Right!—buttons. I’m intrigued if Turk sees this as a leadership pitch by Thae. That crossed my mind too, and frankly, the PPP could do a lot worse. But can a former North Korean who only arrived in 2016, and therefore, wholly lacks the connections in South Korea, such as regional loyalties, classmates and other factors usually seen as a sine qua non, possibly climb Seoul’s greasy pole? Maybe we shall see. (Such matters would be grist for a 38 South – if only there were one.)

All that said, I can’t agree that the Thae-Lee “brouhaha” was “mere froth” or “much ado about nothing.” Turk insists that the students he met 30 years ago had few or no illusions about North Korea. True of the rank and file, I dare say, but the leadership is another matter. It’s a matter of record that 1980s student activism,[5] unlike the 1970s, was Marxist-led (South Korea was a late-Marxising country). One of the two main factions—the so-called National Liberation (NL) wing, which dominated Chondaehyop[6]—was essentially pro-Pyongyang.[7] Tellingly, when Thae asked whether reports that Chondaehyop leaders pledged their loyalty each day before a portrait of Kim Il Sung were a fabrication, Lee didn’t indignantly deny such a scabrous calumny; he merely called this “an exaggerated story.” That’s an interesting, and perhaps rather honest, choice of phrase.

Why does what Lee believed then matter now? Clearly he has moved on, but how far? This isn’t about McCarthyist red-baiting or nutty conspiracy theories that Pyongyang is pulling the strings in Seoul. But the 386—now 586—generation, especially its NL wing, did embrace extreme ideas. Some have actively repudiated their former beliefs, which makes for clarity.

For those who haven’t, it’s fair to wonder if a residue remains. Might Lee In-young still view North Korea, and hopes for peace and engagement, through rose-tinted spectacles? Now in charge of Seoul’s whole approach to Pyongyang, what drives him? How does he frame the challenges facing him? Will nationalist sentiment and radical ideology trump cool-headed and clear-eyed appraisal of the realities of the Kim regime? Will he seek to blame the US for everything, directly or indirectly?[8] Will he ever blame North Korea for anything? He did call Pyongyang’s blowing up of the joint liaison office at Kaesong in June “irrational”—stronger words spring to mind—but he thinks Seoul shouldn’t seek compensation for the $15 million it spent to build it.

Now we have the macabre case of the ROK official shot and burnt by the DPRK in unclear circumstances in northern waters on September 23. Even the pro-government Hankyoreh calls this “the Moon Jae-in administration[‘s]…biggest crisis in its Korean Peninsula peace process to date.” Lee In-young’s reaction was to praise Kim Jong Un for his swift apology. Seoul’s leading daily, the right of center JoongAng Ilbo, rounded on Lee and others whom it accused of “only defending Kim Jong-un” rather than the security of South Korea.

President Moon’s belated apology (it took him nearly a week) to South Koreans regarding this incident expressed “hope that [North and South] will be able to revive the embers of dialogue and open the waterway for cooperation starting with resolving this case (together).” That hope appears as groundless as the metaphor is tactless. Even before this disturbing incident, with less than 20 months left in office and only 18 till his successor is elected, Moon had little time remaining to salvage the inter-Korean hopes which briefly ran high in 2018, only to fizzle out in 2019 and 2020.

Lee In-young will surely be Moon’s last minister of unification. You might think a policy so clearly stalled demands a reappraisal and change of tack. But appointing Lee, plus others of his ilk, suggests that Moon, by contrast, is doubling down. His one-track mind can only envisage more of the same: One last push for North-South cooperation! That, even though Kim Jong Un (despite being under great pressure) could not be clearer, over and over again, that he is totally uninterested in Seoul’s overtures. He blew up the liaison office, for heaven’s sake!

The eventual post-mortem for Moon’s peace process must include the hopes that swirled in hot heads in 1980s Seoul, and their reluctance to abandon such illusions 30 years later. That’s why the Thae-Lee encounter was more than a mere brouhaha. It highlighted important issues of enduring relevance, whoever holds power in South Korea.

  1. [1]

    Before anyone starts, I am well aware of Dr. O’s hard-right politics; she makes them abundantly clear. But this is irrelevant as long as her translation is accurate. And her comments on Lee’s circumlocutions are hard to rebut.

  2. [2]

    Ms. Lim is no longer an ROK lawmaker, as my article said. I’m grateful to Juman Kim for the correction.

  3. [3]

    A further 2.7 million backed the far-left Justice Party (JP). That yielded them a paltry six seats, five by proportional representation.

  4. [4]

    Turk mentions two. “Important regional elections…in April 2021” presumably refers to by-elections, set for 7 April, for the mayorships of Seoul and Busan, and potentially also elsewhere. The next presidential election is due in March (not May) 2022, so that Moon’s successor—he cannot run again—can take office in May.

  5. [5]

    For a detailed analysis, see—if you can: it’s hard to find—Mi Park, Democracy and Social Change: A History of South Korean Student Movements, 1980-2000 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008). Many thanks to Kevin Gray for this reference. For a brief and accessible newspaper summary, prompted by an earlier political row in 2012 which echoes the Thae-Lee debate, see “Jusapa: Painful legacy of modern history,” The Korea Herald, June 11, 2012,

  6. [6]

    Mi Park, 119.

  7. [7]

    Contrast Turk’s bald denial—“Lee and the other Chondaehyop kids were never pro-North Korea”—with Peter Schroepfer’s insider account, cited in my original article. Granting that “Chon Dae Hyop was never a monolith, esp not in the early years,” he adds: “Which is not to say the whole culture of pro-North Korean-ism wasn’t pervasive. Vividly remember some of my seonbaes doing study groups to teach us underlings the official NK underlying philosophy on things like why deification of Kim Il Sung was good & necessary for The Minjok.”

  8. [8]

    Lee’s call to “upgrade” the joint US-ROK working group (“a 2.0 version”) on North Korea policy actually seems like the opposite: a bid to carve out more scope for Seoul to engage with Pyongyang independently of Washington. See his rather passive-aggressive conversation with US Ambassador Harry Harris on August 18.

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