She came, which is something. She saw, if not much. But alas, she did not conquer.
Disappointment goes with the territory in inter-Korean relations. Even so, the complete waste of time which former ROK First Lady Lee Hee-ho’s four-day visit to Pyongyang turned out to be is especially galling, considering the high hopes which – foolishly, perhaps – hung upon it.
Some background first. Lee Hee-ho – also Romanized as Lee Hui ho; in Korean 이희호 – is a remarkable woman, now aged 92 (or 93 as Koreans count; she was born in September 1922).
A Christian leader in her own right in her youth, she is best known as the wife, now widow, of Kim Dae-jung. Her vital support to “DJ” through his long wilderness years – jail, assassination attempts, death sentence, exile – was finally rewarded in 1997, when he won the Presidency at the fourth attempt. Lee, already 75, became First Lady. It was my privilege to meet her briefly in the 1980s, during their exile in the U.S. She was and is an extraordinary, admirable person.
As South Korea’s President from 1998 through 2003, Kim Dae-jung inaugurated the radical “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Lee accompanied Kim to Pyongyang in June 2000 for the first ever North-South Summit.
Kim Dae-jung died in 2009. Two years later his widow returned to the Northern capital, this time in chilly December, for another funeral – of Kim Jong Il, who had hosted them a decade earlier. That visit, of course, needed Seoul’s say-so. Though notoriously hard-line, President Lee Myung-bak wisely okayed it: to keep open lines of communication with the North, at a time of transition and potential risk. By contrast, when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, then-ROK president Kim Young-sam, who’d been due to hold a summit with Kim days later (brokered by Jimmy Carter), not only sent no one to the funeral but put Southern forces on high alert. I agree with Mark Barry that this was a lamentable gaffe and a sadly missed opportunity.
GREETING – AND MEETING?
Lee Hee-ho was thus the first South Korean to meet – if only briefly and formally – with Kim Jong Un, newly thrust into the hot seat. Contact continued with greetings exchanged annually on the death-days of each Kim: Jong Il’s in December, and DJ’s in August. Last August Kim Jong Un as usual sent a personal letter of condolence to Ri Hui Ho, as the North styles her.
A third trip to Pyongyang had been planned for late last year. But Lee, having recently been hospitalized with pneumonia, was advised not to travel during the Northern winter. Politics may also have played a part in postponing this trip until 2015, according to the Hankyoreh.
On Christmas Eve Kim Jong Un wrote to Ms. Lee again, thanking her for flowers she’d sent a week earlier on the anniversary of his dad’s demise and inviting her to Pyongyang. That letter was personally delivered in Kaesong by Kim Yang Gon, Party secretary in charge of policy on South Korea. Kim declared: “We desire better relations between the North and South.”
A personal invitation from the Young Marshal, hand-delivered by the North’s top man on the South: That sets up certain expectations, don’t you think?
In the event the trip took a while to arrange, not helped by sour overall North-South ties. Only a month ago the North had threatened to cancel it, angry at Seoul media insinuations that they wanted Lee to travel by air so as to show off their shiny new airport terminal. In the event she did indeed fly, but declined the North’s offer of a plane; choosing instead a Southern budget carrier, Eastar Jet. (Eat your hearts out, Korean Air and Asiana. You too, Air Koryo.)
As for the terminal: On a Chinese TV clip which alas I now can’t find again, you can glimpse a departures board showing just three flights out of Sunan on August 8 – one of which was Lee Hee-ho’s, back to Gimpo. So make that two flights. Two! All day! On a weekend! In high summer! Build it and they will come: Is that Kim Jong Un’s philosophy? But I digress.
Lee and her party arrived not knowing whether they’d meet Kim Jong Un. North Korea does like to tease. Twice in recent months they’ve invited CNN in, without telling them why.
In the event the Young Marshal never showed up. Nor for that matter did Kim Yang Gon
In the event the Young Marshal never showed up. Nor for that matter did Kim Yang Gon. Lee and her party were hosted instead by Maeng Kyong Il, who as vice-chair of the DPRK’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC) is hardly top-drawer. Isn’t that rather an insult?
So what did Lee and co do during their 4-day (August 5-8) trip? Little of any consequence or substance, frankly. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s KCNA’s full report. Terse or what?
Widow of Ex-President of S. Korea Kim Dae Jung Flies Back
Pyongyang, August 8, 2015 19:06 KST (KCNA) —
Ri Hui Ho, widow of ex-president of south Korea Kim Dae Jung, and her party flew back Saturday.
They were seen off by officials concerned at Pyongyang International Airport.
During their stay they visited the Breast Tumour Institute of Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, Okryu Children’s Hospital, the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage and the Pyongyang Home for the Aged. They went to Mt. Myohyang to visit the International Friendship Exhibition House and Pohyon Temple and went sightseeing to various places of the scenic spot.
That’s it. The orphanage was the main event. Lee hugged the kids and delivered woolly hats and mufflers from an NGO of which she is honorary chair, plus medicines and supplements worth US$258,000 donated by the (South) Korea Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association.
But the rest? The at least partly-Potemkin maternity hospital? (Now with shiny new Siemens scanners, for the fortunate few). Mount Myohyang’s ghastly IFE, aka the Monstrous Dump of Tat with its endless dismally atrocious prezzies to Kims? Pohyon temple with its phoney monks?
All these are standard low-grade tourist fare, and have been for ages. Even a nobody like this writer was herded through all three of them 30 years ago. To inflict these on so distinguished a guest of the Republic as Lee Hee-ho is, frankly, a deliberate insult. She deserved far better. But, gracious lady that she is, she didn’t complain. She has class. Her hosts showed none.
How different it was back in 2000. Then, Kim Jong Il went out of his way to show respect to DJ as his elder. As readers will know, this sort of thing is a big deal for Koreans. No doubt that was in part a calculated performance, but it made quite an impression on the visitors.
Had (Kim) met Lee, even briefly, his stock would have risen hugely in South Korea
Kim Jong Un, by contrast, appears to have no respect, no manners, no PR sense, no nous for diplomacy. Had he met Lee, even briefly, his stock would have risen hugely in South Korea. People like hope, even if it’s just a straw to clutch. How hard would that have been for him?
True, it might have helped if President Park Geun-hye had chosen to send a message via Lee. Or if her 19-strong party had included some political heavyweights like DJ’s former chief of staff Park Jie-won, still active in ROK politics as a leading opposition figure. Some in Seoul reckon that either or both of these decisions may have been perceived by the DPRK as slights. They are certainly missed opportunities, of which we have seen so many these past two years.
True too, Park’s North Korea policy is hard to read. (To say why in detail would take another article.) Different bits of the jigsaw don’t add up, and unification talk only alarms the North.
Suffice it to judge by results, lack of. “The Park government has had no achievement in North Korea policy.” Not my words, but the verdict of Seoul’s leading conservative daily paper.
Not that exasperation is any excuse for DPRK media constantly insulting the ROK President. The day before Lee Hee-ho flew North, KCNA went on the offensive again; calling Park “as wicked traitor as her father.” (It had called her much worse than that before.)
But whatever North Korea may think of Park Geun-hye, why take it out on Lee Hee-ho? And what does dissing Lee tell us about Kim Jong Un? Nothing good. Disrespect apart, this shows no diplomatic skill. And in the broader context of his weird continued failure to meet a single foreign leader or political figure during almost four years in power, you start to wonder. Is the kid just too ignorant, shy, or boorish to be confident of mixing with grown-ups? Are the likes of Dennis Rodman all he can cope with? (If only Michael Spavor would enlighten us!)
I’m reluctant to believe this. On his own (admittedly unchallenged) turf, for instance making speeches (admittedly pre-scripted), the Young Marshal sounds confident and competent. And he was educated abroad, after all. So he knows the world at least slightly. Surely foreigners hold little terror for him. Let alone a kindly Southern lady, old enough to be his grandmother.
To end where we began. Not to meet Lee Hee-ho, having personally invited her, was a rude, stupid and short-sighted decision by Kim Jong Un, or whoever advises him. He needs to learn better manners and greater wisdom, fast. Neither North Korea nor inter-Korean relations can afford many more such wasted chances. And at 92 Lee Hee-ho won’t be heading North again.
She came, which is something. She saw, if not much. But alas, she did not conquer.Disappointment goes with the territory in inter-Korean relations. Even so, the complete waste of time which former ROK First Lady Lee Hee-ho’s four-day visit to Pyongyang turned out to be is especially galling, considering the high hopes which – foolishly, perhaps – hung upon it.Some background first.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.