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Lee Cullum on what she learned in Seoul

By Lee CullumJune 2, 2015

Cherry Blossoms Bloom In South Korea
Cherry Blossoms Bloom In South Korea Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Arriving in Seoul, I was surprised to learn the prime minister would not open our conference as planned. Regrettably, he had resigned the day before, after a businessman left a suicide note detailing the politicians to whom he had made illegal contributions. The prime minister was one of them, and the amount was $30,000 — nothing to officials in America, barely enough walking-around money for a morning in Des Moines.        

But Seoul is a serious city, wildly successful in the midst of madly unreliable neighbors. My stay this time was less eventful than another I had some years ago: George W. Bush had been in office only a couple of months, when Kim Dae-Jung president of South Korea and winner of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his sunshine policy toward the North, came to visit, having lobbied hard for the opportunity. Bush astonished Kim’s compatriots back home when he said in the Oval Office, at a press conference for the two of them, that he was skeptical about Kim Jong-il, then Supreme Leader in Pyongyang, and seemed to want no dealings with him. Darkness was descending on the sunshine.

Since I was from Texas, home state of Bush, the editor of a major South Korean daily, dumbfounded by the report from Washington he had just seen on television, immediately summoned me to a meeting. What, he wanted to know, was going on? He suggested, and I agreed, that Bush 43 might well have been thinking of his father, 41, who had felt betrayed by the North in another nuclear situation. As it turned out, skepticism probably was not a bad idea.

It still isn’t. Not on either side of the DMZ. Six weeks before I returned to Seoul this spring, U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert was attacked in a restaurant where he was to speak during a breakfast gathering. The assailant, teed-off apparently about upcoming joint-military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, sliced a four-inch cut on the right side of the ambassador’s face, requiring 80 stitches, and took a knife to his left arm as well. 

Mark Lippert looked good the night I met him. His arm was still bandaged, but his face seemed nicely mended. Nonetheless, the situation he described in South Korea was as complicated as ever. Few, however, gave much time to the latest Supreme Leader in the North, Kim Jong-un, who is as devoted to basketball as his father was to movies. He who executed his defense minister, said to be disobedient for falling asleep during a meeting, where Kim was present. Not good. According to the Financial Times, he became one of 66 officials killed so far since 2013.

The people I met in Seoul are inured to the machinations of the North. What mainly mattered to them were the Chinese, disturbingly assertive all of a sudden, and not rising as peacefully as they were the last time I was there.

Certainly there was no escaping the dust blowing into Seoul from the Gobi Desert, picking up industrial pollution in China, then sweeping across South Korea, bringing, if not the Asian flu, then certainly the breath of trouble if we do not deal ourselves in soon to the great game of the Pacific.