To a friend of mine who was about to go on a long European journey from early next month, I joked, “Korea may have been reunified by the time you returned home.” He retorted, “Well, then I will take the land route via Beijing and Pyongyang on the way back.”
Things may not develop as quickly as that, but the Korean Peninsula this spring will certainly make headlines with summits scheduled between top South and North Korean leaders and then between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Armed with a mobile phone, my friend will be able to catch news dispatches about the talks between President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim taking place in late April at the Panmunjeom truce village, and the subsequent US-North Korea summit at a yet unknown place. I reminded my friend that he would still miss the great excitement that the historic encounters of those leaders would cause here during his absence.
Moon has even expressed hope to be able to arrange a trilateral summit with Trump and Kim afterward.
Suppose these events produce meaningful results toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and establishing a permanent peace regime here, the three men could be jointly nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. But, much will depend on how they will be able to translate their words into action, if any agreements are made.
The South Korean president, who celebrates the first anniversary of his inauguration on May 10, faces two possibilities. He could make his mark on history with contributions far bigger than those former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun made through their respective inter-Korean summits in Pyongyang. But he should also be prepared for the possibility of being called a historic fool if the peace process he initiated on the occasion of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics comes to a devastating end, such as with another missile or nuclear test by North Korea.
We keep our fingers crossed while our diplomats and security officials busily contact their counterparts in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo to help President Moon stay “in the driver’s seat” in efforts to ease tension between the two Koreas.
Meanwhile, annual joint exercises by Korean and US forces will be held in a markedly subdued mode. An art troupe of top South Korean entertainers are also ready to perform in Pyongyang for an elite audience there.
The Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which were held in the snowy hills of PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, and state-of-the-art ice rinks in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, drew applause from world spectators, giving Koreans a great sense of achievement.
The nationwide buoyancy, however, was quickly replaced by gloom and despondence due to the total disarray in domestic politics.
The Moon administration, born out of the catastrophe of a presidential impeachment, took a combative stance from the beginning against weakened rightists struggling under the impact of outrage over the scandal involving Choi Soon-sil.
The arrest and indictment of disgraced former President Park Geun-hye was followed by the extensive investigation of former President Lee Myung-bak last September in its crusade of “clearing past evils.”
After seven months of an exhaustive probe, first into the former president’s aides and then into his family members, Lee was finally arrested last week on 14 charges, including bribery and misuse of official funds.
Therefore, Moon became the second president of South Korea to oversee the criminal prosecution of two immediate predecessors, after Kim Young-sam, who punished former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo in the 1990s.
Lee grew up as a businessman and has no political force behind him even after serving as the mayor of Seoul for four years and president for five years, although he was elected with nominations from the mainstream conservative party.
When he was escorted out of his house in southern Seoul early Saturday morning, some former aides at the Blue House were seen sending him off but few from the Liberty Korea Party or other rightist groups were visible.
As for the charges stemming from his alleged ownership of DAS, an automobile parts maker, many talk about double jeopardy, noting that earlier investigations a decade ago by the Seoul prosecution and an independent counsel had concluded that Lee had no part in the company.
The renewed investigation added the charge of 11 billion won (about $10 million) in bribes from diverse sources.
Lee denied most of the charges but admitted in a short statement he wrote before leaving his house that he may have failed to meet the standards of conduct for a leader set by the public.
Lee is a rich man who accumulated substantial wealth through his executive positions in Hyundai Group, which must have provided him with chances to make lucrative private investments.
People understand that Lee established DAS as a family business but left it under the names of his relatives when he entered politics.
Prosecutors suspect criminal offenses in the operation of DAS, while many imagine that it would not have become a target of law enforcement had Lee not been the president in 2009 when former President Roh took his own life shortly after he was summoned in connection with a bribery probe into his family.
Nine years after the tragedy, Lee sitting in a cell in Seoul Dongbu Detention Center may blame himself for not trying to deter the investigation of the Roh family.
Political reprisals are a matter that usually has circumstantial evidence only. The persistence with which prosecutors sought the detention of the former president -- with efforts to induce public condemnation through a media campaign in disregard of the non-disclosure principle in criminal procedures -- indicates something beyond the establishment of justice.
Yet, the president must see the aggravation of social division caused by keeping two former presidents in jail at a time when national harmony is sorely needed in the current security crisis.
Moon, having tasked himself with the dual missions of accommodating the North and consolidating the ruling left, should take a third task that is to stop the vicious circle of revenge between political groups. It will probably help him concentrate on his other pursuits and better ensure peace after his departure from power.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.