The death of Roh Tae-woo, who was president from 1988 to 1993, in October put a spotlight on his historical achievements. His foreign policies, such as hosting the Seoul Olympics, joining the UN, and promoting the Northern Policy, are seen as major diplomatic moments in modern Korean history. Behind the scenes of it all was the Presidential Secretary Kim Chong-whi.
Kim served as the senior presidential secretary for foreign and security affairs in the Blue House at the time and has since served as a professor at National Defense University, the president of the Korean Association of International Studies, deputy representative at the Inter-Korean High-Level Talks, and adistinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation in the US. At the end of November, I met Kim, who now works as a “diplomatic strategist” at a cafe in downtown Seoul. Professor Hwang Jae-ho:
You stood by President Roh for five years as his foreign affairs and security adviser. I would like to start with how you evaluate the Roh administration’s achievements in diplomacy and security.
Senior Presidential Secretary Kim Chong-whi: First of all, the operating system in the Roh administration was very comprehensive and properly integrated. At that time, Korea already had a National Security Council similar to what the US has, but it was more likely to function as a separate organization. It was the 6th Republic when the current form of Blue House presidential secretary for foreign and security affairs was established.
Secondly, our position was quite firm: To take the lead when it comes to the inter-Korean or unification issues. I believe this stance eventually led us to achieve the Basic Agreement and regain peacetime operational control, which was another achievement we made at that time.
Third, our stance was to implement the preemptive foreign and security policies. In that sense, the Roh administration could initiate the inter-Korea talks, Northern Policies, and Yongsan Garrison. Last but not least, the president himself led the diplomacy and security aspects from a long-term perspective with a larger flow, since the frequent changes and short term of office at minister level certainly had limitations. Hwang:
I personally have this impression that Korean diplomacy had its great takeoff, heyday, golden age, or whatever we name it, when you served. Kim:
Korea certainly is a small country, but at the same time, we know that it is a country that can play a significant role as a catalyst. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe and the Western world have gone through numerous events both in terms of international or historical significance. Let’s say the unification of Germany, for example. On the other hand, there have not been many changes in Asia. Meanwhile, Korea attempted to bring about changes by establishing diplomatic ties with Russia, China, and Vietnam. I would dare to say, but am confident, that Korea was the catalyst that created a crack in the existing order, but also reformed the order. Hwang:
In the late 80s, the Roh administration presented a forward-looking policy toward China and former Soviet countries, though they were longtime enemies of Korea since the Korean War. Where did this title “Northern Policy“ come from?Kim:
Actually, Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok from the 5th Republic used the term in his lecture at the National Defense University, and we adopted it later. The Roh administration was stepping toward a new diplomacy with China and other former Soviet countries, then we started using the terms “Northern Diplomacy” and “Northern Policy” afterward. At the very beginning, Northern Policy was not the most representative slogan. Hwang:
What was the blueprint of the Northern Policy? And what was its ultimate goal?Kim:
Above all, we aimed to expand our foreign network through the Northern Policy. The primary goal was to build a Korea with influence greater than its actual national power. To do so, we had to stretch over to Russia, China, Vietnam, and others, beyond the Western countries that we were already had diplomatic ties with. Also, joining the United Nations was part of the plan. That was the diplomacy we were thinking of.
Secondly, we tried to extend the fields that the Korean economy could enter. We thought of the necessity of increasing the export volume by targeting Russia, which has a massive amount of natural resources, and China, which has a massive population.
The third goal of the Northern Policy was to strengthen the security system. The interactions with China and Russia through the Northern Policy actually played a huge role in reducing the arms supply chains to North Korea, which streamed down from China and Russia. As a consequence, we could cut down the spending that we were pouring into national defense, and instead focus the national budget on other areas, such as economy or social welfare. Additionally, the consideration of unification is reflected in the Northern Policy as well. Not only simply building embassies in China or Russia, but also lowering their antagonism toward Korean unification was part of the plan. In the end, the Northern Policy was quite an important step in building a peaceful and cooperative atmosphere.Hwang:
When it came to the Northern Policy’s implementation, establishing diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union came before China. Was there any particular reason for this approach?Kim:
Back then, hostility toward the Soviet Union was pretty harsh. President Reagan even called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.” The majority of people were in fact anticipating diplomatic relations with China to happen sooner. Korea and China were already having exchanges and several talks regarding trade and commerce took place. Therefore, establishing diplomatic ties with China seemed bright and feasible. However, even under these circumstances, I thought ties with Russia would be a bit smoother. Considering the geographical aspect, Russia is basically a European country and was facing a deterioration in the sense of international politics. I guess the Soviet Union presumed that opening a new trade and commerce route and seeking an economic revival by holding Korea’s hand would be a better choice, because North Korea’s relations with China was more concrete than that with the Soviet Union, even in economic aspects. With all these realistic conditions interlocking together, Korea’s diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union could move on constructively. Hwang:
Some say that the Roh administration brought up the Six Party Talks. Kim:
Well, that is not exactly fact. It is true that President Roh mentioned the Six Party Talks in his first speech at the UN, but it was the US who had suggested the idea of Six Party Talks. Fortunately, it was actualized, but fundamentally holding Six Party Talks meant dragging the complicated Korean Peninsula issue into a deeper swamp. Because that meant inviting six guests to the table when the negotiation between only two Koreas is already difficult enough. Historically, China and Japan had hard feelings and the conflict between the US and Russia did not seem to be helpful to inter-Korean relations. On this basis, we were rather reluctant about the Six Party Talks. Hwang:
In reality, the Six Party Talks is quite nominal under today’s circumstances. Some members are currently discussing the possibility of opening the Four Party Talks. How do you observe the overall situation? Do you think that resuming the Four Party Talks would help resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue?Kim:
Basically, what we have to keep in mind is to set the conditions where North Korea would be willing to talk. In other words, North Korea would come to the table when it is cornered and face the difficulty. The Roh administration was working on the conversations with North Korea, but China was implicitly and repeatedly supporting North Korea, then eventually there was not much progress in talking with North Korea at the end of President Roh’s administration. Later, during President Kim Dae-jung’s administration, North Korea could receive considerable economic support and this led North Korea to only be willing to talk directly to either the US or Russia. North Korea put the least effort into talking to Korea. Continuing, even when today’s Moon Jae-in administration opened the window and set the talking channel between North Korea and the US, Pyongyang was only interested in facing Trump one on one. Its attitude was relatively reluctant to have South Korea on the same table and seemed to be trying to exclude South Korea from the board. I also feel terrible to say this, but the best way to have North Korea seated with us for a talk is to create a desperate condition. Moreover, when we finally have North Korea seated, the talks must be flexible but very firm at the same time. Hwang:
When you look back at that time, do you also have anything in mind that you think could have gone better? Kim:
I personally wonder how inter-Korean relations would have gone if we had one or two more years at the very end of the administration. I assume we could have made some progress. Back then, we could complete signing the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement, but could not make practical output. The fact that we could not develop the steps further always remains in my mind. To add one more, I would like to cautiously say that today’s society is way too immersed in liquidating the past or purging evils. Every administration or every government certainly has its merits and demerits. Merits must continue and be advanced, while demerits must be corrected and moved on from. However, we tend to completely erase the past and reset the board as every new administration comes into power. This is one thing that could have gone better I guess. Hwang:
The Moon administration has presented the New Northern Policy as one of its major foreign policies. I wonder how it comes across to you. Kim:
I personally cannot tell the major difference between Moon administration’s New Northern Policy and the original one. But in short, I see it is a meaningful trial in the sense that it succeeds the Northern Policy from Roh Tae-woo’s administration. Hwang:
When you were serving, Korea did not have the dilemma, for example, caused by standing in between the US and China as it does today. I wonder if you expected or predicted today’s US-China competition or Korea’s current dilemma. Kim:
China’s diplomacy and negotiating attitude used to be to keep a low profile. China evaluated itself as an under-developed country while praising Korea as a developed one. They used to mention that they were looking forward to learning a lot from Korea. On the other hand, I knew China would grow at some point, but could not expect it to become such a “big power” that it is today. Hwang:
How can we overcome Korea’s dilemma, standing in between the US and China? Kim:
Geopolitically, Korea is surrounded by China, Japan, and Russia, and it seems like standing in a very uneasy position in terms of making strategies. However, if we just simply flip our perspective, Korea could be seen as a strategically priceless location. In my opinion, Korea should strategically make its stance more undaunted and dignified when it is stuck between the US and China. There is no reason to be obsequious to one side or to be too offensive to the other one.
The term we commonly use to describe Korea’s foreign policies toward China and the US is “Security to the US and economy to China,” but this in fact is impossible in practice. That is the reason why Korea has to react flexibly in facing the US and China relations. For instance, it is not necessary for Korea to join QUAD at all, because Korea is directly and geographically bumping shoulders with China, unlike any other QUAD country. Hwang:
China is soon hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Biden, on the other hand, is already making moves to prepare a diplomatic boycott, and some US allies seem to be on board with his plan. Kim:
For this instance, I guess we need to stay still and see how things flow. But at least, the president of Korea should avoid paying a visit to Beijing in person. Hwang:
As Korea will be welcoming a new administration next year, I believe it is time for Korea to make a new leap in diplomacy. What could be the direction for Korea’s future?Kim:
Continuity is what Korean diplomacy is most in need of. The policies are severed every time there is a new administration coming in. This should be highly discouraged. In particular, what we have to do is to distinguish the merits and demerits of past foreign policies, and to put efforts into succeeding and developing the merits. Being way too buried under the frame of liquidating the past might be unhealthy, because it leads to policy severance.Hwang:
In that sense, the current administration has made efforts to succeed and promote the past administrations’ outcomes, such as the Park Geun-hye government’s Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula or the Northern Policy from Roh Tae-woo’s era. If there could be any policies that you consider should be continued for the sake of Korea’s national interest, what would you choose?Kim:
Personally, I suggest the next government work on practical preparations for unification in earnest. No one can tell when Korean unification will come true, and it will be a change in our daily lives. We can only work to minimize errors and ultimately reduce the unnecessary costs when we are ready to face and adopt sudden unification. Whenever there is sustained peace on the peninsula is the right time to prepare for welcoming any unexpected unification.Hwang:
The Korean government has been more focused on peace rather than unification for the last few years. Kim:
In order for Korea to play a more significant role in international society, first of all, it has to grow the national scale. Korea’s national scale by today’s standards is still very tiny compared to neighboring countries such as China, Russia or Japan. Once Korea unifies and the two Koreas can finally combine after a peace and co-existence era, Korea will have a population of about 70 to 80 million. This is a larger number than even the populations of the UK and France. Korea will be able to make the final leap to becoming a developed country that can influence international society, only when it promotes the country based on national scale. This energy of unification will become the background for national development and growth and will lead Korea to stand as a leading country on the international stage. This stage will be beyond the East Asia region. In short, Korea’s unification is the destiny of this country, and we must be ready with full effort. Hwang:
Would you share one scene that made an impression on you that you will never forget?Kim:
I guess that would be the moment when we could successively make the Korea-Russia Summit happen in San Francisco. As I recall, all the talks and decisions were intimately made at such a tense speed. The Russian side had offered me a meeting for a talk, then we were able to sit and discuss holding the summit. Back then we were anxious over whether this summit would really happen, but in the end, President Roh Tae-woo and Mikhail Gorbachev met in person. The successful moment of arranging the summit must be the most unforgettable moment in my life. Hwang:
If there is a single word that represents yourself, what would that be?Kim:
I define myself as President Roh Tae-woo’s “adviser.”
I first met Secretary Kim Chong-whi in person at the 20th anniversary celebration of the establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations in 2012. His temperate attitude and language left an impression both back then and today. The conversation we shared today was based on his accurate memories and logic. Just as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s teamwork transformed the global diplomatic topography, Roh and his adviser Kim preemptively and unprecedentedly led the changes of circumstances that surround the Korean Peninsula.
Above all, the Northern Policy is remarkably brilliant. If Korea was taking a defensive stance, building diplomatic ties with 45 countries including China and the Soviet Union, in such a short term would have been impossible. The Roh government’s successful Northern Policy is splendidly meaningful in the sense of completing Korea’s diplomacy, by adding the “left half” to the “half” that was only focused on the Western world. Northern Policy was “an ambitious blueprint and practice that flipped the existing inter-Korean frame” with one finger snap. It was a strategy that contained mid- and long-term strategic mind and insight, and considered the future unified Korean Peninsula’s position and policy within Northeast Asia that would go way beyond North Korea.
Back then was the era when Korea could clearly show off its dynamic continental disposition. This has unknowingly become some kind of a diplomatic exemplar to the following administrations. Every administration endeavored to come up with new foreign policies, pursued making actual output, and worked on including and promoting the attention to the areas that are still not on the list.
In this way, today’s Moon administration is focusing again on the Northern areas by reviving the original Northern Policy, three decades later. The New Northern Policy emphasizes former Soviet Union countries rather than China. Additionally, the New Southern Policy could be specified as a strategic balancing approach, which embraces ASEAN and India.
The Northern Policy was the one that stimulated the creativeness of Korean diplomacy and moved on. We are looking forward to seeing another Northern Policy from the upcoming administration, continuing the Moon administration’s New Northern Policy.Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com