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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The South Korean Political Fray: Summit Tapes and the NLL

by | October 30th, 2012 | 07:00 am
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On October 8th, Seanuri National Assembly representative Chung Moon-hun dropped a bombshell into the volatile South Korean presidential race. During questioning of  Minister of Unification Yoo Woo-ik before the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification committee, he claimed that there was a top secret transcript of the private meeting between president Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Jong Il during the 2007 summit in Pyongyang; the meeting took place on the afternoon of Oct 3, 2007, at the Baekhwawon guest house (백화원 초대소). According to Chung the meeting was recorded by the Korean Workers’ Party Unification Front Department and subsequently shared with South Korea through channels that remain mysterious but are suspected to be the NIS. Chung claimed that the transcript has been kept at MOU and NIS despite orders given by the previous administration to destroy it; it is not clear whether South Korean officials also have a copy of the actual voice recording.

Minister Yoo denied knowledge of the transcript, noting that a similar transcript of meetings between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il had been registered as classified material; that fact will open new questions too given the controversy surrounding the 2000 summit.

But last week, Chun Young-woo, Senior Secretary to the President for Foreign Affairs and National Security, said in parliamentary questioning that that he had in fact seen the transcript. And this week, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun (Saenuri) told Yonhap that NIS admitted the existence of the transcript in a parliamentary inspection of the NIS. Yoon claimed that while admitting the existence of the transcript, the NIS refused to release its contents because of its possible effects on inter-Korean relations. Although some doubts linger, the existence of the transcript is now being treated as a fact.

Chung’s leaks contained some pretty explosive material; the original Korean was read into the National Assembly record. The translations are best-approximations, so don’t quote us. We include the Korean.

  • “The NLL gives me a headache. Since it was arbitrarily drawn by the U.S. to play land grabbing games, South Korea will not insist on the NLL and the NLL problem will naturally go away if [we] agree on common fishing in this area.”
    • “NLL 때문에 골치 아프다. 미국이 땅따먹기 하려고 제멋대로 그은 선이니까 남측은 앞으로 NLL주장을 하지 않을 것이며 이곳에서 공동어로활동을 하면 NLL문제는 자연스럽게 사라질 것”
  • “As I travel all over the world, I am working hard as if I were North Korea’s spokesperson, arguing the logic that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is a righteous measure. So North Korea should help me.”
    • “내가 전 세계를 돌아다니면서 북한이 핵 보유를 하려는 것은 정당한 조치라는 논리로 북한 대변인 노릇을 열심히 하고 있으니까 북한이 나좀 도와달라”
    • Mr. Chung also mentioned that the dialogue includes parts where Roh agreed with Kim Jong Il on the withdrawal of US forces and Korean unification. The transcript also promises the North large-scale economic assistance.

The target of the leak is clearly the Democratic United Party’s presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in. Moon was Roh’s chief of staff at the time and the South’s point man on the summit. President Lee Myung Bak wasted no time in exploiting the issue by making a surprise visit to Yeonpyong as the partisan debate kicked into high gear  (New York Times coverage here ). LMB pointedly note that South Korean troops “must safeguard the NLL with their lives until unification comes” and any North Korean provocation will be met with reprisals “a hundred and a thousand times” stronger than whatever the North deals.

Well, don’t Roh and Moon deserve to be pilloried? It certainly looks bad,  particularly given the political context. But the substance is a bit more complex. First, it is not clear that the NLL is a territorial border. Roh did not hide his views in this regard; he stated so publicly. The ROK constitution stipulates that “the territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands” (Article 3).  If taken literally, the NLL is a temporary measure that could be adjusted depending on the state of inter-Korean relations. Indeed, the Roh summit proposal for a joint fishing zone—ultimately shot down by public and military reaction—was designed as a confidence building measure. Recall that the summit was held in the wake of incremental progress in the Six Party Talks and before things went south during 2008.

Indeed, we can go farther and note the irony of the Saenuri position: conservatives are arguing that a temporary line drawn for security purposes is in fact a legal territorial boundary, meaning that the DPRK is—another country? Again ironically, Minister Yoo subsequently backtracked on October 24, pointing out in National Assembly questioning that the position of the LMB government did not in fact differ from that of the public statements by Roo Moo Hyun.

Now the ROK naval chief has weighed in suggesting the NLL is a border.  Not helpful.

Even Roh’s comments about nuclear weapons and US forces can be spun. Roh could be cozying up to Kim Jong Il in the context of the ongoing effort to denuclearize. Such an interpretation would translate as follows:

Roh to Kim Jong Il: “North Korea’s ambition for nuclear weapons is warranted given the Bush administration’s hostility; I understand that. But if you make concessions (“help me”) then we can get to a place where the current level of US forces on the peninsula will not be necessary.”

The historical issues around the NLL are important and unresolved ones. We reported earlier on interesting new historical documents that have come to light on this question. And Roh’s stance toward the north is of important historical and practical implication as well; how far was he willing to go in distancing South Korean foreign policy from the US? But Chung’s allegation is not about history; it is about the present. The whole flap clearly seeks to portray not just Roh but presidential candidate Moon as a patsy of the North on crucial security issues, including particularly the NLL.