Han Duck-soo tragedy
Assistant managing editor
Three years ago, I wrote a column about Han Duck-soo, the former prime minister-turned-ambassador to the United States, now chairman-to-be of the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), a pseudo-state agency charged with doing what the name indicates.
The title of my Feb. 3, 2009 Korea Times Column was “Envoy With Faustian Heart.” It was before the Times changed its headline-writing rules to use capital letters more sparingly.
The column took issue with Han taking the job of ambassador to Washington because he had served as the last prime minister during the Roh Moo-hyun administration which had been replaced by the Lee Myung-bak government for less than a year at that time. We know that the two can’t mix. They are like oil and water. The Lee administration, as expected, adopted a policy that was “anything but Roh.”
I criticized Han for cutting a soul-selling deal with the devil to satisfy his worldly desires and argued there was a pattern in his behavior, pointing out a rumor that he called a newspaper and demanded his hometown be described as Seoul, not Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, when he was talked about for an important position during the Kim Young-sam administration.
During the Kim administration, whose regional base is Yongnam, which includes both North and South Gyeongsang Provinces, the people of Honam, like Han, feared discrimination when up for promotion. If Han rebuts this rumor, I am willing to accommodate it in my column.
The late former President Kim Dae-jung was from Honam and was credited for helping overcome the regional divide. Now, Han’s online resume states Jeongju as his hometown.
With his behavioral pattern considered ― rumored or verified ― I came to the conclusion three years ago that Han was an opportunist and his actions amounted to political prostitution by offering his wares to whoever makes the highest bid with no questions asked.
At that time, President Lee hired Han because of his expertise in trade matters in general and his ardor for the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA).
Han did what he bargained for by ensuring the ratification of the trade deal.
Now, Han has been called in by President Lee and offered the job of KITA chairman.
Although there are some conflicting accounts about Han’s abrupt resignation after their one-on-one meeting, it is most likely that Lee asked for Han’s help in fighting the opposition’s furor to retract on the KORUS FTA ratification. I want to believe that it was a genuine concern off Lee’s for the nation that moved Han to take the job and defend the trade pact.
Even if that was the case, however, it is wrong for two reasons.
First, his resignation was so sudden that it gave the impression that protocols were ignored.
Han visiting Korea for an annual meeting of overseas-assigned diplomats, was called in for a meeting with Lee and tendered his resignation to Foreign Minister Kim Sun-han.
Then, he took the KITA job. It all happened within 24 hours. The ambassador to the United States is a job on the frontline dealing with matters with our most important ally so there should be as little room for surprises as possible. The administration triggered public perception of a schism that could be avoided, if Washington had been notified in advance.
But more significantly, it all comes back to the issue of political convenience against personal integrity.
From Lee’s perspective, there couldn’t be a more effective tool than Han in his FTA war. After all, Han was the prime minister who played a crucial role in the KORUS FTA settlement under the Roh administration.
Opposition politicians leading the anti-FTA crusade are Roh’s top lieutenants and Han’s former colleagues.
Using Han to fight his old friends in a political battle that may boost the sagging morale of the ruling camp is, to say the least, a brilliant idea. Lee may be feeling a sense of vindication against criticism that he lacks the basic political skills to govern.
Maybe, Han will be reinvigorated from a rush from being at the center of a historic event.
Perhaps, for him, it doesn’t have to be the KORUS FTA.
While he was prime minister, he called Cheong Wa Dae and asked presidential aides to tell him any way to help President Roh’s fight to revamp the old corrupt pressroom system.
It was a nasty fight setting Roh against the most influential mass media. Although the current administration declared the Roh initiatives null and void, they have been implemented both in spirit and practice, bringing an end to a press cartel and allowing access to all news media outlets.
Han’s offer of help was taken in equal parts with amusement and surprise because he was regarded as a career bureaucrat who was reluctant to meddle in political affairs.
Han is already firing a barrage of criticism at the opposition’s idea of abrogating the trade pact if it takes power. The new KITA chairman, said that Washington is worried about talks of abolishing FTA, and disclosed that it will go into effect in March before the April general election to pick a new National Assembly, saying no countries have been harmed by FTAs.
Han is likely to prevail once again not because of the strength of his arguments but because there are more supporters than detractors. Chances are that the opposition is trying to gather progressive forces ahead of the election at the risk of voter anger.
What I fear, however, is another victory by Han the opportunist. What I fear more is writing another column about him, this time admitting that one can shift loyalty in any direction the political wind blows and still prosper. I may have to blame myself for being naive.