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'Tough Times Ahead Require U.S. Trust'
Former newspaper publisher Hong Seok Hyun gives his first interview as ambassador to the U.S.
Jung Un Hyun and Sin Mi Hee (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-02-28 14:25 (KST)   
Reporters: Jung Un Hyun, Sin Mi Hee

South Korea's new ambassador to the United States, Hong Seok Hyun, is the former president of the JoongAng Daily and the president of the World Association of Newspapers. He spoke with OhmyNews on Feb. 19 in his first media interview since taking public office.

Hong told OhmyNews about his strong relationship with the United States and the positive role this can play as he represents South Korea in Washington. He also outlined the outlook for North Korea's coming back to the table at the six-party talks.

The 57-year-old Stanford Ph.D. and former economist at the World Bank said he has no political aspirations following his tenure as U.S. ambassador, and dismissed claims he got the appointment based on his connection to Samsung Group (his elder sister is the wife of Samsung Chairman Lee Kun Hee).

The following is a translation of the Feb. 19 interview.

Ambassador Hong Seok Hyun
©2005 Kwon W.S.
OhmyNews: There is controversy recently over the North Korean nuclear issue. Do you believe the six-party talks are the only window for a solution?

Hong Seok Hyun: The international issue that usually got the most attention during U.S. presidential elections was the Israel-Palestine issue. I think last year was the first time the Korean problem really rose to the fore as a hot election issue. Kerry stressed the importance of bilateral talks, while Bush stressed the framework of the six-party talks. Bush made this a campaign pledge, but past direct discussions between the U.S. and North Korea have not been really significant. If North Korea comes to the six-party talks, I think the U.S. will discuss things with a fair amount of flexibility.

North Korea, after its nuclear declaration, may not agree to talks, so do you have any plans to lead them back to the negotiating table?

I think the first thing needed is close policy coordination between the five nations that want North Korea to come back to talks. If you have the U.S. and Japan and one side, you also have China and Russia, with whom North Korea is comfortable with, on the other. Through dialogue, North Korea can say whatever it wants to say, be it to the U.S. or South Korea, and I think now is the time when North Korea has to make a decision.

©2005 Kwon W.S.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, who visited China on Feb. 17, said that if North Korea didn't come to the talks in the end, the other five parties could jointly respond.

A joint response doesn't necessarily mean some kind of sanction. If dialogue doesn't proceed smoothly, doesn't this mean that bilateral trust is lacking? In particular, there is a lack of trust between the U.S. and North Korea, and I want to speak of hope that policy coordination between the five parties, and amongst them, because China and Russia are in a position to discuss closely with North Korea. They must produce an atmosphere so that North Korea could come back to the talks, even if it's for the North's sake.

I know your friendships with figures in the U.S. played a big role in your appointment as Korean ambassador to the U.S. Do you have a particular acquaintance with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?

Ms. Rice earned her degree from the University of Denver, but she started out as a professor at Stanford, and she was the vice president of the school for six years, so Stanford and she have a long connection. I don't have any personal connection with the school, but we have many common friends. In the case of the U.S. State Department, not all the high-ranking slots have been filled yet, but luckily, it seems Ambassador Hill, the head of the U.S. delegation to the six-nation talks, will become the assistant secretary of state of East Asian and Pacific affairs, and I've maintained a good relationship with him from his days in Seoul. I've also built up a good friendship with Evans Revere, the deputy assistant secretary of state, from the time he was in charge of embassy affairs in Seoul. I think the relationship between our embassy and the U.S. State Department will be better than it has ever been.

There might be nothing wrong with the alliance between the U.S. and Korea, but there appears to be some bad blood between the two peoples. How do you think we must resolve anti-American feelings in Korea and anti-Korean feelings in the United States?

©2005 Kwon W.S.
Korea is a nation that was established under great U.S. influence, and during the course of the Korean War and our economic revival, an inseparable alliance was formed with the U.S. When you look back, there were tensions in our relationship with the U.S. during the Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee eras, too. The recent expressions of anti-American and anti-Korean feelings in our relationship arose as our relationship with North Korea substantively changed. With the signing of the North-South Basic Agreement and Denuclearization Declaration in 1991, we have virtually discarded our anti-communist policies and pursued a policy of peace and co-existence.

After the inter-Korean summit of 2000, there were internal tensions over how to view North Korea as well. With the election of President Bush, the U.S. view of North Korea matched that of conservatives in South Korea, so progressive forces in the South began to express an anti-Americanism that differed from that of the past in things such as the way they view Washington. Since the Roh administration took office, the leaders of both nations have met frequently, and mobilizing their diplomatic corps, they've managed to solidify the official bilateral relationship so that no cracks have appeared.

'I've never met President Roh one-on-one'

What is your biggest strength in carrying out your duty as ambassador to the U.S.?

I do not have diplomatic experience, but I spent 11 years in the U.S. studying and working. Moreover, I've engaged in international activity to the extent that as a businessman, scholar and journalist, I've spent an average of 100 days a year abroad for the last 20 years. So I have a lot of foreign friends. More than my personal abilities, when you look at my experience in international activities, my personal connections and my record, it would seem the credibility my dialogue carries within mainstream U.S. society would be a huge advantage. I think that my strength is that even though I might say the same thing as another figure, the Americans will think, "Ah, that person understands the U.S. and is a friend of the U.S.," and I can operate with that trust.

Who did you talk to when you were first offered the ambassadorship?

©2005 Kwon W.S.
By coincidence, I left to attend the 30-year anniversary celebration of the U.S. edition of the JoongAng Ilbo and attend the board of directors meeting of the World Association of Newspapers on Nov. 12, and I heard maybe four or five days before that. So the first person I really discussed it with was Washington Post CEO Donald Graham, who I was meeting with at the time.

Graham said that in each country, the relationship between the media and power differ, but in the current situation in the U.S., should such an offer come, a publisher couldn't change a thing, and he said I would have to think it over. Graham was generally negative. With the North Korean nuclear issue, the Korea-U.S. relationship wasn't easy, and he was worried that as a friend, I might have a tough time of it.

On the other hand, there must have been people who told you to take the job and encouraged you.

I have a friend who's a lawyer in Washington, and he said he opposed me taking the post when he considered things generally, like the influence it would have on my paper. He knows me well as a friend, however, and he knew that I've done several things even while I served as a newspaper publisher and my enthusiasm for things like the World Culture Open, so he said that with the nation in a tough situation, it would be good for me to give it a try.

'There is no possibility of me entering politics'

Some are expressing concerns that this move into officialdom might represent a "new political-economic fusion" or "new political-media fusion."

That responsibility falls not on myself, but on those remaining at the JoongAng Ilbo. Much like a judge speaks through his judgments, a newspaper has no choice but to speak through its pages. If this were an appointment to a domestic position, it would have been easy to decide a position. But because it was an appointment to an important diplomatic post at a difficult juncture for the nation... Anyway, the production staff at the JoongAng Ilbo will do fine. I don't think they will disappoint their readers.

There are those who say you could never have gotten the position without "Samsung" in the background.

That is their opinion. A lot of attention was given to a comment I made during an interview with the Chosun Ilbo when I said I would use the Samsung network, but I stressed at the time that there was no need to mobilize Samsung's network in particular. It meant when the nation calls, you have to use all your networks, such as Samsung's, Hyundai's or even Martians. Can I do a better job just using Samsung's strength? No. My relationship with Samsung is one that will not break as long as my bond with my older sister (Hong Ra Hee, the wife of Samsung Chairman Lee Keun Hee) lasts. Perhaps it would be best to ask President Roh about the Samsung theory, as he appointed me.

©2005 Kwon W.S.
Your feelings about leaving the media and your newspaper company must be quite strong...

I've been with the JoongAng Ilbo for almost 11 years. I don't feel like I've left yet. Perhaps when I get on the plane, I'll feel it, but what do I say? Perhaps because I'm nervous because I'm leaving with a major task ahead of me, but it hasn't really struck me that I'm leaving yet.

Some say you actively sought the ambassadorship because you felt there was nothing more for you to accomplish or gain socially as president of the JoongAng Ilbo.

I'm certain that hardcopy newspapers are not a growth industry. But when I met Donald Graham, he told me something said by Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the U.S. behind Bill Gates and a member of the Washington Post board of directors. He said from the 1970s to mid 1980s, newspapers were a good moneymaking business, and that even now, as long as they are run well, newspapers are good businesses that can earn a lot of money. I was inspired.

Even if it were a declining industry, the No. 1 will always prosper and survive. I think our citizens' potential and nation's future are bright, and in the future, we can attain an average income of US$20,000 to $30,000. When that time comes, major newspapers will be quite influential and secure a strong economic base. I think it's a little strong to say that I'm jumping from a sinking ship. It's just that I wanted the satisfaction of being active in something other than newspapers.

You said that even if you returned to the newspaper, you don't think you would go back to be a publisher. What is the possibility of you returning to a newspaper company?

In my interview with the Chosun Ilbo, I thought this was a difficult question. I meant I would do my job as ambassador faithfully, with the desire to once again return. Asked what I might do when I return, I said I could imagine becoming a publisher once again, but because I left once, I didn't necessarily have to go back to publishing. But there is no possibility of my entering politics. Primarily, I want to get a newspaper job and handle management.
©2005 OhmyNews

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