Interview: Lee Jong Chan

"We Want to Provide Freedom"





Lee Jong Chan, 48, floor leader of South Korea’s National Assembly and a founding member of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, visited the United States last week to take part in a symposium on Northeast Asia at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. During his trip, he spoke with Newsweek’s Paul Mooney in New York about political and economic issues. Excerpts:

MOONEY: Your government has recently taken steps toward liberalization. Why have you chosen to do so at this time?

LEE: This was not something that started overnight or just recently. Ever since President Chun Doo Hwan took office there has been a gradual, step-by-step move in this direction. During this first year, for instance, he not only abolished curfews, but also some of the old laws that restricted the basic rights of people. That was the beginning of a continuous process of liberalization.

Q. Political dissident Kim Dae Jung has said that he hopes to return to South Korea from exile in the United States sometime this year. Will be be allowed to return?

A. We have not received any communication from Mr. Kim regarding his wish to return. However, in my opinion, I see no difficulty in his returning to Korea.

Q. Anti government protests, particularly among students, have grown in the past two years and appear to have become more radical. Recently the government promised to take a more lenient attitude toward campus dissent. How far are you willing to go?

A. In the past, whenever there were campus disturbances there was an immediate response by the police. They would go out to the schools and stop whatever the students were doing. Professors and university administrators were pushed into a corner. The government does not find this practice healthy and so we have decided to see whether school authorities, the students and parents of students can work out something among themselves. We want to provide freedom, but we want students to accept the responsibility that goes along with it.

Q. What is your response to those who say that President Chun does not have the broad support of the people?

A. I do not agree with that. He is not like previous presidents, such as Syngman Rhee or Park Chung Hee, who had a kind of personal, charismatic authoritarian rule. President Chun has a completely different attitude toward running the country. He is trying to understand the problems of the people and he is looking for solutions. I see significant signs of support for the president.

Q. If President Chun carries out his promise to step down in 1988, this will be the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the Republic of Korea. Some observers, however, feel that Chun has not established the political framework necessary for such a transition.

A. Everything is on schedule and moving ahead in accordance with the Constitution. President Chun has laid out his plan for a peaceful transfer of power not only from a constitutional point of view, but with political realities in mind as well.

Q. In recent months, relations between China and South Korea have improved dramatically. What role can China play in improving relations between the two Koreas?

A. While there has been a change in the attitude of the Chinese, I see no real change in their fundamental position. But what the Peking government can do is exercise its influence over North Korea’s rulers so that they will refrain from making any miscalculations or provocations that might lead to renewed hostilities in Korea.

Q. Japan has recently expressed an interest in taking part in expanded talks between North and South Korea. What is your reaction to this offer?

A. The question of reunification must be resolved through a bilateral dialog between the North and the South. It is an internal matter of the Korean people and must be solved as such. Japan can help by creating an environment that would get the North Koreans to the negotiating table.

Q. Does this mean that you are ruling out North Korea’s offer for three-way talks that would include the two Koreas and the United States?

A. I see no possibility of the three-way conference taking place. The question of including outside parties must be discussed and agreed upon by our two sides first.

Q. Do you foresee any possibility of having peaceful and stable relations with North Korea?

A. We hope to solve the question of Korea in a peaceful manner. The issue of unification cannot be achieved in a short time. In the meantime we have proposed a number of programs such as reuniting families, and establishing small-scale economic exchanges as well as cultural and sports exchanges. If these programs are fruitful, confidence can be restored between the two sides and there will be a lessening of tension of the Korean peninsula. Once peace is achieved, we can work toward unification. But despite our efforts, North Korea has shown very little interest in our proposals.

Q. In the United States there has been growing concern about Korea’s trade surplus, and some people are saying that Korea may become a “second Japan.” What is your view?

A. I see bright prospects for bilateral trade in the future. In the past 10 years trade between the United States and Korea has increased more than tenfold to $14.4 billion. If trade is allowed to continue without interference, volume will climb to $26 billion by 1988. Korea is in no way a “second Japan.” The United States, in its trade with Korea, has never suffered the kinds of trade deficit that it has with Japan, and I don’t want to see such a deficit develop.

Q. Is there any danger that current trade tensions could escalate into a larger dispute?

A. America is our largest trading partner and we do not see any problem that could impair trade relations between our countries. I feel that there are misunderstandings on the part of U.S. policymakers and on the part of the American public. We would like the American people to understand the economic situation in Korea today.