Alex Jensen talks Korean presidents, past, present and future with Michael Breen CEO of Insight Communication Consultants and author of The New Koreans.
Alex and Michael begin their discussion with a reflection on the passing of Roh Tae Woo and his complicated contribution to the development of South Korea. The 1988 Seoul Olympics being juxtaposed with his participation in a coup and his three-time reelection.
Michael then discusses the amazing development he has witnessed since his arrival in Korea in 1982, both economically and politically. As the building cranes built the apartment buildings and factories, a burgeoning democracy was also being built. He discusses the times of the Three Kims, Presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung and king maker Kim Jong Pil with some very interesting comments on Kim Jong Pil.
Michael then talks about an amazing three and a half hours he spent at a luncheon with 20 other journalists in Pyeongyang. He met with and listened to Kim Il Sung discuss his perspectives on the Korean War and Japanese occupation.
Moving to the present, Michael outlines his learned views on the current state of Korean politics and the potential risks in the ongoing rift with Japan. Michael wraps up by discuss the brewing tensions between the US and China and how it could impact on Korea.
A thoroughly entertaining and vital piece of context for all of us wanting to understand the political landscape of South Korea.
Today’s episode was brought to you by The Four Seasons Seoul, stylish elegance in the heart of the city.
Presidents past, present and future, Korean politics with a true local legend, Michael Breen
Alex Jensen: You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m Alex Jensen, and it’s Tuesday, November 2nd. Now, you may have heard over the weekend the nation formally closed a five-day state funeral for now late former president Roh Tae-woo, who recently passed away at the age of 88. He was the country’s last general turn the president and South Korea’s first president to be chosen by the people in a democratic election. And this is just a few months before that democratic tradition continues with the next presidential election here. What does the recent past tell us about our near future, we’ll hear from an expert guest who’s met personally with some of modern Korea’s most influential figures, including leaders from both north and south. Today’s episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, stylish elegance in the very heart of the city.
Alex Jensen: So, I’ve taken this opportunity to head once again outside the studio into the wilds of Seoul and in fact, again in the Gwanghwamun area, I find myself at the offices of Insight Communications CEO, Michael Breen is also the author of ‘The New Koreans’, which is an updated version of the Koreans if you ever read that, Mr. Breen, thank you very much for taking the time.
Michael Breen: As a pleasure, Alex.
Alex Jensen: Spinner process for me of thinking, what would be best to talk to you about in this podcast is I think there’s just so much you have to offer and I hope there’ll be more opportunities. But the presidential election coming up, and the passing of a legendary figure from the past seemed the ideal opportunity to draw on your wisdom. I mean, not to himself, a controversial figure, but associated with the rise of democracy in Korea, how would you sum it up?
Michael Breen: Well, he was a controversial figure for the reasons that you’ve just said and so, there was a great sort of effort 30 years ago, to portray him as a military dictator. Now, he was one of the coup makers who took over in the early 80s, but he then became the first democratically elected president of the country. So, depending on which way you fell on this, or how you interpreted it, some people saw him as a dictator. Whereas others accepted that he had sort of hung up his uniform and was now as a civilian, democratically elected leader. And I tend to go for the second which he was, I mean, he was elected, he beat his 3 main opponents in the election and as one Korean academic sent to me on the eve of the election, predicting the result, because all the foreign press, of course, thought that one of the civilian democrats would win. He jokingly said to me, you got to remember that democracy for weak Koreans means the right to choose our own dictator. And in a way, a lot of people I mean, although you’ve meant it as a joke, a lot of people thought Roh Tae-woo was sort of continuing the dictatorial tradition, but turned out he didn’t, you know, he, as I say, hung up his military uniform and adopted the sort of standards of democratically elected president and democracy proceeded thereafter so, with each president each, you know, each president in Korea is limited to a single five-year term at the moment under the constitution and with each president from Roh Tae-woo onwards, democracy has arguably move forward. I mean, you could say once or twice it’s sort of taken a step or two back for various reasons. But essentially, the democracy we see around us today, really began then with him.
Alex Jensen: And his arrival in office coincided with probably the first time that me from afar as a child in the UK, became aware of South Korea through the Seoul Olympics up until that point, I had not studied the Korean War or anything like that. So that was a big moment for the nation did the Olympics itself have a big impact on South Korea’s development from there?
Michael Breen: A huge impact. You could argue, you know, if you like these sorts of what ifs of history, you could argue without the Olympics. It might not happen that quickly because, you know what happened was, as you probably know, the host city for the Olympics is chosen seven years before South Korea was bidding then in 1981. At a time when the military dictatorship had was about one year old and I can’t remember now who the other candidates cities were. But it was an extraordinary decision by the IOC. Because normally, I think apart from Mexico City in. when was that? at 72? Apart from that, the Olympics had always been in safe countries, European countries, America, Australia, places like that Tokyo, in 1960. Never been apart from Mexico, never in what you might call a third world, let alone and a country that appeared to be unstable.
Alex Jensen: Looking backwards, you think third world that sounds a bit odd. But it’s amazing that the rapid development and already we’ve, I think had a couple of guests on this podcast talk about their first impressions of South Korea when they arrived in, say, the 1990s. What’s your own story for people who are not familiar, but you’ve been here as a reporter and as a businessman for decades. And through that time, you’ve also had the chance to get up close and personal with some of these leaders, including late former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, which is a big moment for you, I think. Tell us a little bit about your own impressions of that development and the big figures that have been there in your time?
Michael Breen: Well, I came in 1982. And as a journalist, and at that time, every government press briefing, every government interaction that we had in the foreign press was prefaced by as the hosts of the 1986 Asian Games in the 1988 Olympics, that though that a that, you know, and so what happened was the Olympics telescope, the development of this country that there were development plans that would have probably taken 20 years all got telescoped into seven years. Roh Tae-woo was actually the chairman of the Olympic organizing committee for bulk of that time. And so, Korea at that time was politically a dictatorship but in other regards was quite astonishing this year by year transformed them in Seoul, Seoul itself was a massive crane, it felt like that and you got up in the morning there was dust over your car from construction, not from the Gobi desert.
Alex Jensen: You’re not talking about last week, are you?
Michael Breen: And so, the figures at that time, you know, over the years from about 1985, 86, the restrictions were lifted on civilian politicians, they’d all been on a banned from politics that the main ones, Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, Kim Jong-pil, people like that. They all started to come back. So, the foreign press, we were quite a small group. So, we knew Roh Tae-woo, we knew Kim Dae-jung, Kim Jong-pil, Kim Young-sam, these people personally, in fact, with the press being the domestic press being controlled. The opposition looked to the foreign press to get their message out about democracy. So, we were on you know, very close personal terms with these with Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, especially the small group of correspondents would be around their house, houses quite frequently. And then, where were we? the Olympics.
Alex Jensen: There’s actually I think, a whole bunch of tangents I could go off there. I think a lot of people would be curious what these men were like, Roh Tae-woo himself and some of those other legendary figures you just throw into the conversation like Kim Dae-jung?
Michael Breen: Well, I’ll give you let me let me tell you a little story. I mean, I’ve had personal experiences with all of them. But the best illustration I had was a bit later, as I’m sure you know. Three of the four characters I’ve just mentioned, all became presidents Roh Tae-woo was followed by Kim Young-sam, who was followed by Kim Dae-jung. Kim Jong-pil, who was one of the most extraordinary characters on the Korean political scene for like 30 years, became a prime minister with Kim Dae-jung.
Alex Jensen: Was he the one that was nicknamed the kingmaker later?
Michael Breen: He was kingmaker. Yeah. And so, I met somebody during the end of the Kim Dae-jung administration, who had been in the Blue House as a staffer for all three of them, and asked him to describe what they were like, and what he said was very interesting. He said Roh Tae-woo was a military man. It’s very, very interesting when you get a political leader who has achieved something in a previously in another profession, they have less to prove. There’s a certain confidence there. He said Roh Tae-woo knew what he didn’t know, in the sense that he knew he didn’t know stuff. He allowed himself as the president to be totally scripted. I, we had the foreign press had a session with him one time in the Blue House and I was sitting on the table with him. And there were about, I think, on our table, maybe seven or eight people. And a bit of paper was put in front of him. He didn’t look at any of us in the face, but he made a sort of a wisecrack to each person without looking at them. That had been written down for him, you know. So, he was script, his cabinet meetings were totally scripted and once the cabinet ministers realize this, they got their aides and the Blue House aides to sort of conspire ahead of time, you know, Kim Young-sam, was not the brightest spark. I mean, he was a democrat, civilian democrat who’d been around since the 50s. But he suffered a little bit from arrogance, and they reckon that any briefing for him had to be gotten onto one page. If it was longer than the page, she thought it wasn’t important. Kim Dae-jung, on the other hand, had a little notebook and a pencil in his pocket and was constantly whipping it out and taking notes and would actually, he was a very, very thoughtful man who sort of connected the philosophy and sort of the values of democracy to what he was doing, and would sort of lecture his ministers and so on, and they, and so get very hands on with aspects of policies of three very different types of character.
Alex Jensen: One further tangent, which we have to ask, because I mentioned it, how does Kim Il-sung and the entourage of North Korea compare with the experience of the Blue House and meeting the South Korean leaders?
Michael Breen: Well, it was different, you know, Kim Il-sung. I mean, I can’t say we had a, an interview session with him, and then a lunch, so altogether, about three and a half hours. And I think there were about 20 of us.
Alex Jensen: And that was in Pyongyang?
Michael Breen: In Pyongyang. And he was, actually by that time, he was quite old. He’s afterwards on the way out as I was shaking hands with him, I told him in Korean that I was the South Korea correspondent for my newspaper. And I could see that he wasn’t really there, and they told us later, he’d actually got out of bed, for he was sick already got out of bed for this meeting, then went back to bed. So, he wasn’t all there. But from the distance across the table, he struck me as being very comfortable in his skin, as the leader, I mean, obviously been the leader for years. So very gracious, quite strategic in his thinking he warmed to strategic questions, you know, bigger picture questions. But the overriding impression I got from him was bearing in mind, you know, when you meet a dictator, you expect them to have horns on their heads and so, he, you know, he didn’t. Sort of have a long fang or anything like that. It wasn’t wiping sort of, like a jar of fingers on his desk or anything. But the overriding impression was, he was living in the past, you know, he’d be asked something about his country. This was in what just before he died in 1994 and he his references were all to the Korean War, or even before that the Japanese occupation, it’s struck me it’s even sitting there and thinking, ‘My God, this is like, meeting the Queen, and she’s going on about beating the Germans in the war.’ You know, it’s very, very old fashioned and because in a way, there had been nothing in between that period and him, there had been development of a sort, but it had been under him all the way. So, his point of reference is just a justification for everything he did and the way his country was routed 30, 40 years back.
Alex Jensen: It’s just astonishing because it’s hard to imagine Kim Jong-un approaching media in quite the same way I know he has sort of caught the attention of the likes of Dennis Rodman and, and he has had some interactions with foreigners publicly and less publicly during his own period, but something else that struck me there was about the past what we can actually learn from it. I think that’s one of the key takeaways of this conversation today. Because here in South Korea, I know you just say Korea, not South Korea, but I’m saying it to distinguish between the two, we have seen what you described as a progression towards democratization. We’ve still got every election though calls for more democratization. And two presidents ago, we had an impeachment and a huge nationwide scandal. What’s your feeling of the pulse of democracy and the nation as we go into March’s vote?
Michael Breen: I think the, you know, the weakness of South Korean democracy, I think I mean, well, maybe I should emphasize the strength. First, the strength is that shown by the track record, we’ve already how many presidents we had, since Roh Tae-woo, six or seven, I think Moon is the seventh, we’ve had a change to an opposition victory twice. I think twice, yeah. Which, you know, you compare with neighboring Japan, where the ruling party, it’s a democracy, but the ruling party has been in power and the power goes between factions within the ruling party for decades, apart from once, I think. So, this is a real sort of feisty democracy, and very answerable to the people. But I think therein lies its weakness, because, you know, there’s two parts of democracy, one is the consent of the governed. In other words, the people need to feel that they’ve chosen their leaders rather than they’re living under a dictatorship being told what to do by people they don’t like. The second is the institutions of democracy, the courts, the national assembly, you know, the parliament, whatever, and everything else. And in Korea, that first part of democracy, the being answerable to the people, is given too much weight, in my opinion. You know, democracy really requires mature, trustworthy institutions to function. Even if there’s 100,000 people out in the street yelling at you, you have to do your job according to the law of the land. You can’t have your opinions swayed by every demonstration of popular feeling, obviously, you take popular feeling into account. But you as the elected leaders are not put in there to do the will of the people. You represent something you have certain ideas, and they choose you. Do you see what I mean?
Alex Jensen: I do, I do see what you mean. But yet, there’s still this element of shutting down certain types of opposition. And where this may be relevant to businesspeople, for example, trying to get ahead in Korea, they’ve got to be aware of changing regulations and the way that decisions are made and the way that politics is done and for example, under one administration, you could have an atmosphere of being very favorable to the outside world, and then suddenly it swings. Now, Korea’s not alone in that just asked the US in recent years, but what do you think we need to know going into this next election about the way things might change depending on who is in charge during that single five-year term?
Michael Breen: I think you’ve got you know, we talk in modern democracies about liberal conservative left and right. So, we do the same in Korea, we have we have a left and we have a right. But and broadly, the understanding of what it means to be on the left, for example, is that you tend to lean more on government to change the environment and the systems and provide welfare and so on. Whereas on the right, you tend to think government’s role is just to sort of get out of the way as much as possible. Although, frankly, these differences in the reality of modern democracies where governments have enormous powers, and they’re very, very regulated, these differences aren’t as big as they seem. But that’s a broad difference, but and you get that with within Korea as well, but in my opinion, the real difference that separates the Koreans when we say left and right, it’s not really about that, because even people that we look we would call conservative in this country. Believe In what in other democracies would be an extraordinary amount of government control over everything. So, the real thing that distinguishes them in my opinion, which is a little bit dangerous, it potentially is a different view of what their country is. One view that I’d call it the right the rightest view, is their loyalties to the Republic of Korea, South Korea formed in 1948, for all of its sins, you know, the first 30 years, a dictatorship, not very pleasant in some regards. But warts and all, that’s what they’re loyal to. The political left, they’re loyal, they don’t like the Republic of Korea. Their loyalty is to and as yet unborn fantasy country, the unified Korea. And so, they this and, because of Korea’s division began with the Japanese occupation for them. If they’re elected again, they’re in power now. There will be anti-Japanese ism. Japan is like Satan until the Koreans are unified again, in their view, and they will reach out they will bend over backwards to forgive whatever sins are committed by North Korea, because they want to see this nation born. Now the thing is, I say that’s left and right. But for a lot of people, those two views of the country within that one your own mind, you can if someone’s arguing for one, you can say, Yeah, I know. I understand. I believe that and then arguing for the other. Yeah, I believe that as well. But broadly speaking, that’s the division and so far, it’s containable. But this could cause a tremendous rift at some point in the future. I think that’s what we got to watch out for. What we’ve seen so far, though, having said that, is that with the last five years of the Moon administration, they are on the political left, but the relationship with America is as strong as ever. The outreach to North Korea is measured but the relationship with Japan is really bad. And shockingly, so caused by this government and so, there’s a potential for things to change one way or another, depending on whether the conservative candidate gets elected, or the so-called liberal candidate gets elected. But that’s the deep point to how to understand the difference between the two of them.
Alex Jensen: I’d like to ask you a little bit about the China situation as well, because that’s the one country in this whole mix that we’ve not mentioned so far and as a business relationship and economic opportunity, it’s huge. But we are seemingly in this new cold war type era right now. How do you read that?
Michael Breen: We are, and I think the Koreans going through, I think what a large part of the world is going through, which is I can’t even I’m not even sure when this started down. But perhaps it was under Donald Trump was there was a natural sort of affection for China or respect. And he said, Wow, this country’s really going places and allowing, you know, I think we knew well, they cheated a little bit didn’t play by the rules, but you allow for that, because countries at certain stages of development, don’t have to play by the same rules, countries that are fully developed, you know, usually get that and a willingness to sort of bend over backwards or not exactly bend over backwards, but you know, give them a long what’s the word, you know, give them their due? That’s changed. The there’s a, I think, the treatment of the wiggers. In China, you know, the Muslims in China, the particularly the pressure now in Hong Kong. I mean, talk to anybody from Hong Kong. Now you get the impression it’s got, it’s lost, it’s gone. And Xi Jinping now becoming president for life. Not quite as good as Kim Il-sung in North Korea, who’s the eternal President even after he’s died, but president for life is pretty serious. And so, this negativity towards China is very, very apparent here because the Korean, the Koreans have actually survived as a separate people, over the centuries are made larger powers by with a very acute strategic understanding of when to when to be stroppy, when to fight and when to roll over, they’re very, very good at, you know, how to take advantage of struggles between greater powers, all that sort of thing. I think what we’re seeing now is a great deal of confusion because there’s tremendous dependence on Chinese, economically, and also their neighbors. I mean, they’ve got to get along somehow, but a thoroughly growing dislike of the bully tactics that they’re seeing. And that the shift that we’ve had here that just three or four years ago in this country, people, a lot of people, you know, particularly professional type people, journalists and people like that had a gut dislike of Japan, even though Japan is a democracy, it’s a neighbor, it’s an advanced economy. It’s a great you know, a lot of Koreans love to go there for their holidays and things they every so often that they have to cancel their tickets or avoid going into a Japanese owned shop, because there’s some campaign going on. But their gut feelings were against Japan and their gut instinct was to embrace China. I think the I think that’s gone, it’s either gone or is going.
Alex Jensen: That’s certainly borne out by a lot of the surveys in recent months and younger people as well. For example, pushed back against media contents that glorify China or don’t quite reflect a pro Korea stance in history. This has really been fascinating. We’ve got to draw the line somewhere, but I think we are definitely gonna have to catch up again in the future. We can talk to you about communications, we can talk to you about journalism, we can talk to you about pretty much anything related to Korea because you are the author of The New Koreans Michael Breen. Thank you very much.
Michael Breen: Thank you, Alex.
Alex Jensen: Well, if you also enjoyed that chat, please do share spread the word about Koreabizcast. And let me also thank once again, the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul for sponsoring today’s episode, check out fourseasons.com/seoul and see you again tomorrow from 7am, Korea time.