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Interview with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun

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  • "Chairman Kim [Jong-Il] ... is considerate, listens, and at times is humorous"
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joined Talk Asia to discuss some of the major events during his presidency. The following is a transcript of his conversation with CNN's Sohn Jie-Ae.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun

SJA: What was your first impression of Kim Jong Il when you first met him?

RMH: People that have met Chairman Kim get a lot of questions about him. I think this is because there is the perception that he is probably a strange man. But I think that that perception itself is not correct. In a word, he speaks with candor, and in a direct manner without hesitation. But that is not to say that what he says is offensive or he makes everyone around him uncomfortable. He is someone who knows how to maintain a pleasant atmosphere and is considerate of others in conversation. Honestly, he is not someone that is aggressive or makes people uncomfortable. He is considerate, listens, and at times is humorous. And while he is talking with you, he makes you feel safe and makes you like him.

SJA: You spent quite a long time with Kim Jong Il behind closed doors, it was not like some head of state visit where you go in and say hello and have a cup of tea and leave. You actually negotiated with Kim Jong Il. What was he like as a negotiator?

RMH: I get this feeling that he is very clear in his opinion and makes you feel he doesn't have anything to hide. Now, his tendency to make a strong assertion then take it back may make you feel that he is out for some strategic motive, but that is not how I felt. I felt that he knows when to assert his opinions and when to give in. So in terms of negotiations, he is flexible. Not a very difficult person to negotiate with.

SJA: There were a number of firsts on your trip. But one of the very first firsts was you stepping over the border and being the first South Korean President to ever do so. How did you feel stepping over the border into North Korea?

RMH: Since everything was so prepared ahead of time, there was not a lot of emotions at the time. But in my mind, I had wanted this not to be a one-time event, but hoped this road would be one that many people cross over from one side to the other. So I hoped what I did opened the way for many others to follow.

SJA: Another feature is that the boxes of South Korean movies, DVDs seem to have been a great hit with Kim Jong Il. Who came up with that idea, and how did Kim Jong Il react to South Korean films? Did he seem like he actually knew the films already?

RMH: The gifts were selected as a part of a number of gifts, and I thought it was a good idea. But unfortunately I didn't ask who thought of the idea.

SJA: Did Kim Jong Il like it?

RMH: Yes, Chairman Kim looked over the titles and showed quite a lot of curiosity about them. And he thanked me in person for giving him such good things. I took it to mean he genuinely was interested, because he is known to have interest and expertise in this area.

SJA: What were your discussions about the North's nuclear issue? Did you feel or did Kim Jong Il ever tell you that he was willing to give up his nuclear weapons system, or do you believe that he will?

RMH: Yes, I do. I have believed for a long time that North Korea was willing to give up nuclear weapons, and there is no change in my belief. That is, I believe that North Korea thinks it is more beneficial not to have nuclear weapons than to have them, and that if the circumstances were right, they would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons. I have no doubt about such assertions from North Korea. I think there are sufficient grounds to think so.

SJA: Something that seems to be looming in the distance is North Korea's uranium project. Do you believe that North Korea does not have a uranium project? If so, why?

RMH: I've never said North Korea possesses uranium but also haven't said it doesn't have uranium. Regarding the uranium issue, I've said there's no evidence of North Korea possessing uranium, but I've never confirmed that North Korea doesn't possess it.

SJA: And do you think they will publicize all of this as part of the six-party talks process?

RMH: In regards to that, if I talk about specifics, I go into too much detail, which makes me miss the essence of the issue. After questioning whether North Korea is willing to give up it's nuclear weapons program, we should see the big picture and solve the issue by asking, "Are we willing to trust each other to solve it?'" There's a big possibility of losing the right way to settle it if we deal with small issues one by one. In addition, people who've been trying to solve this problem see the big picture and ask, "Is North Korea willing to give up the nuke weapons program? And is it willing to settle the issue this time?"

But people who're not happy about resolving this problem divide up the issue and question every step. If we follow question by question, we end up concluding that we cannot trust North Korea. So I think it's better not to divide up the issue in order to help resolve it. If you think this way, there's nothing we cannot overcome. If we force ourselves to do things that we don't want to do, we can't go forward. The foundation is the mutual belief.


SJA: When you came into your presidency, there were a lot of people that perceived you as being anti-American. During your presidency, what was the biggest point of contention between South Korea and the United States, specifically between yourself and Mr. Bush?

RMH: That was a very twisted or an exaggerated view. Because there were many rumors about me being anti-American, the first pending issue between South Korea and the United States had to be "Is President Roh Moo-hyun anti-American or not?" I had to spend much time and effort to explain and convince people that I wasn't anti-American but a supporter of South Korea-U.S. relations.

SJA: How were your views different from Mr. Bush's, and how were you able to resolve them?

RMH: In the beginning of my administration, Mr. Bush and I had differences of opinion, and one of them was the North Korean nuclear issue. In other words, I understand President Bush and some of his aides had been considering stronger measures against North Korea and wanted to keep all the options on the table, and they said so publicly. But we had to be clear that some options were absolutely unacceptable.

SJA: War?

RMH: Not only war, but any use of armed forces or extreme sanctions that could cause a war. With things like this we had differences. I'm not sure whether the U.S. government really considered all the options or it was only their strategy. but I guess the U.S. may have needed to mention such things.

SJA: One topic that has not been contentious between United States and South Korea is you deciding to send troops to Iraq. It was a very unpopular decision domestically but you made the decision anyway, and even the more unpopular one to extend their stay in Iraq. What was behind that, why?

RMH: Korea-U.S. relations were important in the past and will be important in the future. We have had dark moments in our relationship and times when we needed very close cooperation. During the beginning of my term, it was a tense time when both governments needed to work very closely together to resolve these very difficult and sensitive problems between the two countries. That is why cooperation between South Korea and the U.S. was even more important. I think that was the major reason. Now I am not going to say anything specific about the ethical issue, that is, the right and wrong of anything. I think the U.S. government may have been disappointed at this. But I went against the wishes of my people to decide to dispatch troops to Iraq. And so it was difficult, actually not possible, for me to do this under such circumstances.

SJA: Now another place that South Korean troops are is Afghanistan, and that provided another crucial point in your presidency. What went through your mind when you first heard that 23 South Korean young Christians were kidnapped by the Taliban?

RMH: People are apt to believe that the president is always poised to come up with solutions to every issue, and I believe I have to be ready to do so. But, in many cases, things do not turn out the way we expect. The moment I was faced with such an unexpected surprise, I felt like my mind went blank and I could not think of anything for quite a while. I had to think of all possible scenarios, but there was nothing logical I could come up with, because that situation was not something we could understand with common sense.

SJA: Would you do anything different, when you look back?

RMH: I responded like this. That was an incident nobody would ever be able to brace for in advance. It was impossible to prepare to cope with such a crisis because its nature was so irrational, illogical and absurd. The most difficult question was whether any government should negotiate with people who perpetrate such egregiously barbaric, absurd and illegal acts. From the perspective of morality, negotiations with such people were a great disgrace for the government. On top of that, they demanded that the negotiations be made public, that we not make a deal secretly in a hideout. It was an extremely tough decision to make as president to begin negotiations with them.

However, the bottom line was that the value of a human life outweighs any logic or reason. It was different than the value of life in a religious context. The question was what we should do in the eyes of the people who live their lives as a member of the community depending on the country. The answer to that came to loom large as an overriding value. That was the value, the foremost value. That moral reality forced us to suppress any reluctance about negotiating with the hostage takers.

SJA: There was also a lot of speculation at the time that a ransom was paid. Did you ever authorize that?

RMH: I had no report of this. At the time, many countries and international organizations lent us their support and aid. We are grateful to them.


SJA: So this is your office. What was the most memorable or difficult decision you ever made here?

RMH: There were many, more than one. When I make every decision, at the time, that becomes the most important one. So it's difficult to pinpoint one.

SJA: Like during the Afghan hostage crisis, you must have gotten a lot of reports, and you held a lot of meetings here. That must have been quite a difficult period for you?

RMH: I got a lot of briefings here during that time. There was a lot of discussion as well. But to make the final decision, I had to have many private consultations with aides.

SJA: Well, one of the things you notice here is there is not a lot of paper work. I mean, you see on your desk, and it's neat. I don't know if it's for our benefit, but it's very neat, there's no paper on it, all you see is your notebook. Is that how your desk is all the time?

RMH: It's not that I have few papers. If you notice, I have none at all. There used to be a lot of papers. But they have disappeared. These days the process of looking over documents and approving them doesn't exist any more.

SJA: Is it all in there?

RMH: Yes. And so while the discussions or the briefings on many policy matters are done in here, I can go back to my private quarters, sometimes after work or in the evening, and look over papers or documents. So I have a small study in my private quarters, where there is a big computer screen.

SJA: I understand you actually developed the software, or part of the design?

RMH: I partly did. This is my hobby. I spent a lot of effort in helping to develop this program. Here are files I looked at back in my private quarters this morning, and this is a file that has things that I must approve right away in. And others that have things that are sort of on a FYI basis.

SJA: But why? It doesn't seem like the thing normally a president would want to do. Is there something you wanted to achieve when you developed this software?

RMH: Of course, developing the program is something a president usually doesn't do or needs to do. But the president does need to use this program. Or it would be very efficient if he does use it. This program really facilitates communications, so that I don't have to call people in here every time I need an answer to something.

SJA: I see on the side a wall that shows how you kept in touch with the people as you became president. Is the hope piggy banks something very important to you?

RMH: These are things from the last presidential election. If I were to take all of the piggy banks that were given to me at the time, it would form a wall that is higher than me.

SJA: These are the actual piggy banks?

RMH: During my campaign, the empty piggy banks were distributed to the people, and people filled them and gave them back to me. This supporter sent me a gift of the gold medal that he got from his place of work for working there 10 years. I couldn't bear to sell it for money, but kept it as a souvenir. They are all symbols.

SJA: It gives you probably a lot of comfort and a peace of mind. I think it probably would have been very important to you, especially during the whole impeachment process.

RMH: These letters, memos, all of these things were put here to serve as a warning to myself. But in reality, they also become a burden as well. During the process of parliament trying to impeach me, this wall served as a source of hope. Because all of these people who gave me such gifts came out into the streets to support me. They were a source of hope for me. But on the other hand, they weighed heavily on me as well. I couldn't help thinking, they made me president, and now I am going to get myself impeached! I really felt apologetic. Now this display is not just here for me to get sentimental about it. I think this period is not just an important period for me personally, but I think this was an important time in the process of the development of South Korea's democracy. This is very important to me.

SJA: You're going to retire soon from the presidency, but are you going to retire from politics?

RMH: In Korea, to step down from the presidency is to step down from politics. But I thought about what it means to step down. I hope that means a free man. From even before I entered politics, all I wanted was to be a free man. Another thing is that I will now be able to watch the news on TV with peace of mind.

SJA: Because it won't be about you?

RMH: Yes. While I am president there is almost nothing in the news that doesn't have anything to do with me. It is either very important to me, or in a wide sense my responsibility in some way or another. So while watching every item on the news, I would feel burdened, or I would feel sad or happy. I mean I couldn't comfortably watch the news. But when I have stepped down, when I watch the news, it will be with an entirely different feeling. I think to be able to watch the news with a more peaceful state of mind is to look at the world with a more peaceful state of mind. I will be able to move only when I want to move. That's freedom. To be able to attain such freedom fills my heart with anticipation right now.

SJA: And I hope you do get your freedom. We'll have to leave it at that. Thank you very much for your time. That's it for this week's edition of Talk Asia. I'm Sohn Jie-Ae in Seoul. Join us next time.

All About Roh Moo-hyunKim Jong-ilSouth KoreaKorean PeninsulaNorth Korea

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