The South Korean tell-all that told too much

Has the former South Korean president gone too far with his memoir?

The former president's memoirs annoyed many people in Seoul, writes Lankov [EPA]

Retired politicians love to write memoirs. Sometimes it seems that writing a memoir after retirement is part of the job description of leaders of modern states. These memoirs usually come with a political agenda, and also include a good deal of self-justification.

This is all well and good, but in some cases, retired politicians might divulge things that are best kept confidential. It seems that the recently published “President’s Time”, the memoir of Lee Myung-bak, president of South Korea from 2008 to 2013, was a book that crossed too many lines, and provided the general public with information that they were better off without.

Most of the revelations are related to local politics; the former president settles scores with his domestic opponents, including his successor President Park Geun-hye. However, some exposures include new facts about how South Korean foreign policy was conducted during Lee’s tenure.

Almost all of the confidential information he decided to spill relates to inter-Korean relations.

Where to draw the line

For example, it has been widely known that in Lee’s time, Seoul and Pyongyang confidentially discussed the possibility of another inter-Korean summit. Indeed, Lee’s memoirs confirmed that such contacts indeed took place in 2009, and again, in late 2010.

Lee’s memoirs reveal that the confidential negotiations ended in nothing because the North Korean side attached a huge price tag for its willingness to have a summit.

Inside Story – The two Koreas: from kind words to shots fired

Again, it has long been known that inter-Korean summits are essentially commercial operations, with the South paying the North for a useful photo-op. The first summit cost $450m, while the second summit was also paid for indirectly.

For the third summit, the North Korean side was demanding 500,000 tonnes of grain as food aid, a $100m investment in road construction projects, and also $10bn in seed money for a development bank.

Lee refused to pay, and the talks collapsed, but resumed again in 2010 – soon after North Korean artillery had shelled a South Korean island, killing some civilians, and the world media began speculating about a coming war in Korea.

Delegation attempts

Nonetheless, it was time for the North to send a delegation to the South. The new attempt did not bring much success, even though the North Korean demands this time were far more modest – merely half a million tonnes of grain. Interestingly, the man who led the delegation, was executed upon his return home (a rather common fate for high level security officials in the early days of Kim Jong-un’s rule).

These revelations are likely to create obstacles for future attempts to hold summits. Now, the conservatives who are dead set against “cash-for-summit” schemes will become even more vigilant, and their vigilance might seriously damage all attempts to improve relations between the two Korean states (alas, such improvement frequently implies concessions, gifts and payments by the rich South).

Lee Myung-bak also tells of how the former premier of China spoke rather disparagingly of North Korea's ruler.


Lee also tells of how the former premier of China spoke rather disparagingly of North Korea’s ruler. He recalls a meeting he had with Wen Jiabao, the premier in question, who made remarks about the North Korean leader’s embarrassingly young age (an issue the North Korean leader reportedly takes seriously).

On another occasion, Wen reportedly told Lee that he doubted Kim would remain in power for a long time.

It is an open secret that Chinese leaders have little admiration for the North Korean government. Nonetheless, such exact details are damaging. Given the sensitive state of relations between North Korea and China, such remarks are likely to create some additional problems for Chinese diplomats – and, no doubt, diplomats will not feel much gratitude towards the hyper-talkative Lee.

Bringing down the rest

There are other revelations, unrelated to North Korean policy. For example, in his memoirs, Lee speaks of how US President Barack Obama was upset about attacks against his foreign trade policy in US media. The annoyance might be understandable, but Obama hardly wants such information aired in public.

The former president’s memoirs annoyed many people in Seoul, including a great number of foreign policy specialists. Indeed, confidentiality is a necessity in the conduct of international affairs, whatever naive idealists would want us to believe.

Now South Korea’s leadership in the eyes of its neighbours no longer appear as trustworthy as they did before Lee published his memoirs. This is not good news for South Korea’s foreign policy.

Hence, the outrage of South Korea’s political class is understandable. But we humble observers can just relax and enjoy the show.

After all, it is always fun to learn graphic details about secret talks and deals, the basic content of which there were many rumours, but not confirmed in any detail. 

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.