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[Opinion] Memories of Yon Hyong Muk

Posted October. 24, 2005 03:03,   


In September 1990, then-North Korean Prime Minister Yon Hyong Muk, who visited Seoul as the North’s chief negotiator in inter-Korean senior level meeting, got the attention of South Koreans with his outspoken style of speech. “North Korea distrusts the South because it believes that the South tries to blow “the winds of freedom” to the North,” he once said. His sophisticated manner, splendid physique and amiable appearance also helped him command such popularity among South Koreans that he would create “Yon Jjang” syndrome if it were now.

He even had a great sense of humor. When Kim Gwang Jin, then People’s Army General, got on elevator wearing only his military uniform, not a hat, Yon said, “Not wearing a hat is arms reduction,” making people around them burst into laughter. It was a witty remark that came out when negotiations were stalled due to the issue of arms reductions.

He does not hesitate in giving outspoken advice. A widely accepted theory states that he was demoted to the post of party secretary of Jagang Province in December 1992 right after the senior level meeting ended because he brought the hatred of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il upon himself by proposing a limited opening up of the North when he reported his observations of the real condition of the South that he gained as he shuttled between Seoul and Pyongyang to them. According to an anecdote, when National Defense Committee Chairman Kim Jong Il visited Jagang Province in 1998, Yon said to Kim, “People are starving. Please make up some countermeasures,” and at this remark, one of Kim’s bodyguards drew a handgun. It is said that far from getting angry at Yon’s words, Chairman Kim complimented him for his loyalty and honesty. I wonder if there is an advisor who can give such outspoken advice to the president at risk of his or her own life even in the South, a democratic society.

When he was the party secretary of Jagang Province, he lifted the ban on slash-and-burn farming as the food shortage got serious. By taking the lead in overcoming power shortages through building mid-and-small sized power plants, he got acclaim from Chairman Kim that he was a model example of a man who was helping to revive the economy. Thanks to the confidence of Chairman Kim, in 2003, he was promoted to the position of National Defense Committee Vice Chairman, the No.3 position in the North.

The Dong-A Ilbo designated Jeong Won-sik, then Prime Minister of the South, and Yon Hyong Muk, then Prime Minister of the North, as “the figures of the year” in late 1991. The two played a leading role in the adoption of the “South-North Basic Agreement.” The reason why they were designated was that they were considered to have opened a new chapter in inter-Korean reconciliation. The chief editor of this newspaper visited North Korea to convey him a memorial tablet when the eighth senior level meeting was held in Pyongyang, but could not do that because the National Security Planning Agency (predecessor of the National Intelligence Service) stopped him. The news that Yon died on October 22 provokes reflections on the meaning of the “memorial tablet.”

Lee Dong-kwan, Editorial Writer, dklee@donga.com