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Los Angeles Times Interview

Lee Joung Binn

A Veteran Diplomat for Korea's New Sunshine

February 18, 2001|Robin Wright | Robin Wright is The Times' chief diplomatic correspondent and author of four books on international issues

WASHINGTON — Lee Joung Binn works on what may be the last frontline of Cold War diplomacy. As South Korea's new foreign minister, he is the legman for Seoul's "sunshine policy," launched in 1998 to end North Korea's isolation and reunify the two Koreas.

Lee has made a specialty of ending the Cold War for South Korea. As communism crumbled in the Soviet Union a decade ago, he mediated the establishment of relations between Seoul and Moscow. He then became ambassador to Russia from 1996-98.

A small man who speaks crisply and favors dark pinstripe suits, Lee bridges the old and the new Koreas. He's one of the few envoys dating to the Syngman Rhee era, which makes him a political survivor. Last year, when he marked almost 40 years as a career diplomat, he was selected by South Korea's first democratically elected president to be foreign minister.

The one subject about which Lee is passionate is the division between both Korean society and state. "It's very difficult to convey to Americans the sense of what it means to be a divided nation," Lee says. "You had your Civil War, but you have always had freedom, democracy and a market economy as your guiding principles and goals," he says.

"Where else in the world besides Korea will you find 10 million people unable to see their parents or children or loved ones for five decades? We must put an end to it."

Lee was recently in Washington for South Korea's first contacts with the Bush administration and to discuss U.S. plans for North Korea with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. After the Middle East, the most important diplomatic initiative left hanging by the Clinton administration is the framework for a deal with Pyongyang that would end its development and export of long-range missiles and eliminate one of its last remaining weapons of mass destruction.

The grandfather of two, Lee says his only other real passion is golf. His handicap was 18--until he became foreign minister. "Who has any time for golf anymore?" he asked.

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Question: South Korean President Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize last year in part for his "sunshine policy" to reconcile the two Koreas. Where do those efforts stand?

Answer: This is a policy we don't expect to complete overnight, something we are promoting gradually, consistently and patiently. It is a policy we will continue with until peaceful coexistence is established between South and North Korea.

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Q: Given the difficulties of reunification in Germany, Vietnam and Yemen, how realistic is it to think the two halves of Korea will be able to reunify in less than a generation or two?

A: This engagement policy with North Korea is based upon an understanding of reality: that unification is an unrealistic goal at this point. The goal now is to lift the grip of the Cold War from the Korean Peninsula so that both sides can live in peaceful coexistence. Toward that end, we are trying to promote reconciliation and cooperation on one track and a reduction of military tension on another track, so that we can create favorable conditions for peaceful unification--eventually.

In implementing specific terms, the pace can be uneven. For example, family reunions are easier in summer and fall. In winter, it's difficult to organize exchanges of these very old people. So there can be slowdowns along the way.

After observing the German, Vietnamese and Yemeni experiences of unification, we are firmly convinced that a gradual approach is the wisest approach.

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Q: Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il interested in reunification because of economic need or political realism?

A: Unification has to be seen as a shared aspiration of all the Korean people, the chairman included. Since his father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, Kim Jong Il has been able to take full control of the political system and the military in North Korea. But the economy has worsened to such an extent that without outside assistance, North Korea cannot sustain itself.

So there has been a need to open up and to do things differently, not as a matter of choice, but as a matter of survival for North Korea.

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Q: What role does the United States play?

A: The United States is our closest ally and friend and will continue to render all the cooperation and assistance that it can in the process. In engaging North Korea, we are sharing roles. South Korea is taking the lead in promoting exchanges and cooperation, and the United States is taking the lead on weapons of mass destruction and North Korea's nuclear program.

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Q: The United States has had more than 37,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea along the North-South border for a half-century. How much longer will they be needed?

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