Go to contents

[Op-Ed] Sauna Summit

Posted May. 14, 2009 08:11,   


Former U.S. President George W. Bush tried to make visiting foreign leaders comfortable by inviting them to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He preferred the ranch to the presidential retreat Camp David. Clad in blue jeans and cowboy boots, he drove visitors on his pickup truck for a tour around the ranch while having conversations. Who would not be impressed by such hospitality?

No Korean president has been invited to the ranch. The White House tried to invite then Korean President Roh Moo-hyun before a summit in 2005, when Seoul-Washington ties were at their worst. The invitation never happened, however, because of opposition from several of Roh’s close aides. At that time, Seoul said it was “not important” where and how the presidents meet.

Bush’s invitation of President Lee Myung-bak to Camp David in April last year was interpreted as a sign that bilateral ties had been restored. The two leaders drove a golf cart at the retreat and deepened their friendship.

Personal friendship and trust between leaders are very important for national interests. That is why a country treats foreign leaders with great hospitality. In 2003, then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arranged a traditional ryokan in the resort town of Hakone for visiting British counterpart Tony Blair. Koizumi even took care of Blair`s bed in person.

In a unique case, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev had a sauna session called "banya" with visiting President Lee. In Kazakhstan, an invitation to the banya is considered to be of the utmost hospitality to a guest.

In Korea, the highest hospitality to a visiting foreign leader is inviting him or her to a state banquet at the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae. In her visit to Korea in 1999, British Queen Elizabeth II was greatly impressed when invited to a traditional folk performance in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, and offered a Korean-style birthday food table. In a country with no presidential retreat, it is hardly easy to arrange such an event for a foreign leader due to security and protocol.

There were once four presidential retreats in Korea, but all of them are now open to the public, with the last one opened in 2003. Korea needs more ways to give visiting foreign leaders the best impression of the country. Restoring the Cheong Nam Dae retreat could be one option.

Editorial Writer Gwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)