It became belatedly known that Ri Son-kwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, had made a scathing joke about Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon, chief policymaker of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
During an event in Pyongyang on Oct. 5 marking the 2007 inter-Korean summit, Ri was quoted by participants as saying, “those with a pot belly should not be entrusted with a budget,” after a ruling party official introduced Kim to him as the party’s main official handling the government budget.
He obviously talked down to Kim over his appearance, effectively calling him fat and untrustworthy.
Earlier, Ri, who represents the North in high-level talks with the South, made insulting remark to chiefs of leading South Korean conglomerates during September’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang.
While members of the South’s delegation including the chaebol chiefs were having lunch with North Korean officials at Pyongyang’s naengmyeon (cold noodle) restaurant, Ri reportedly berated the tycoons.
After one of the chaebol chiefs ordered more naengmyeon, Ri said, “Are naengmyeon gliding down your throat?” In Korea, it is disrespectful to refer to the body organ when one speaks about eating.
According to MBC TV, which quoted an unnamed source close to a South Korean participant in the luncheon, Ri said “You weren’t doing anything. How dare you want more (naengmyeon)?”
The network seems to have made this report to deny Ri used the word, “throat,” as the ruling party questioned the authenticity of Ri’s remark. But the newly reported remark may sound more insulting depending on how it is interpreted.
It was not the first time he talked to South Korean officials contemptuously.
When Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon was two or three minutes late for his meeting with Ri, Cho said it was “because of my broken watch.” Ri retorted, “the watch is (broken) like its owner.”
Ri ridiculed a senior South Korean ruling party official, berated chaebol chiefs and taunted the Unification Minister. His words are nothing to laugh away. The government and the ruling party must demand an explanation and apology from the North.
But the ruling party and the presidential office side with the North as if they were its spokesmen.
A Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson said Monday, “Ri’s remarks have not been fact checked yet. North Koreans’ manners and culture are a bit different from those of the South. If the context of a sentence is not considered, words of praise North Koreans speak can sound like criticism to South Koreans and vice versa. The remarks in question are not serious enough to take away from the North’s hospitality to President Moon Jae-in.”
Cheong Wa Dae charges off public resentment over Ri’s remarks to differences in linguistic habits between South and North Korea.
But few would use such vulgar language if there was no animosity or contempt. Ri’s remark is not merely a matter of linguistic habit or individual peculiarity.
Asked by reporters Sunday about Ri’s “pot-belly” remark, Kim Tae-nyeon said, “Don’t obfuscate the essence of the matter. Do not gossip about his words.”
He and other participants in the event reportedly dismissed Ri’s remark as a joke and laughed it off at that time.
Hong Young-pyo, floor leader of the party, said he called Park Yong-maan, chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and three or four chaebol chiefs, who had lunch at the same table with Ri at that time, to ask if they heard Ri speak as reported, and told journalists that they answered “it did not happen.”
Hong effectively muzzled the participants in the luncheon. Under this regime seeking better ties with Pyongyang nearly single-mindedly, few chaebol chiefs would answer boldly without hesitation, “Yes, I heard him say that.”
The honest message behind Ri’s remark may be: “We have nuclear weapons. Behave yourself. All you are here to do is make us an offering.”
South Korea is not a tributary state of North Korea.
Ri may have made supercilious remarks because the South has not tried to put the brakes on them.
Moon must respond strongly to attempts to treat South Koreans with contempt.
No matter how important reconciliation with the North is, the presidential office and the ruling party must not brush off Ri’s blatant scorn.
Being treated as fair game in public or private is neither the way to improve inter-Korean relations, nor to facilitate the denuclearization of North Korea.