The Bait-and-Switch of Lee Hee-ho

After the eastern hemisphere calmed down about the DPRK setting its clocks back 30 minutes, it refocused on real news: Kim Jong Un invited Lee Hee-ho to visit him in Pyongyang over August 5−8, then promptly retracted the invitation at the least convenient time.

Most news outlets focus on two identifying traits of Lee Hee-ho: she is the 92-year-old widow of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, and they associate her with the “sunshine era” of the two nations. Her name is alternately Romanized as Lee Hui-ho or Ri Hui-ho.

The Sunshine Policy was instituted in 1998 by South Korea as a form of “killing them with kindness” tactic in dealing with North Korea. President Kim Dae-jung initiated this policy to engage with the historically belligerent and short-tempered DPRK. It stipulated that while South Korea would not tolerate any saber-rattling on North Korea’s part, the two nations would behave as though they respected each other’s sovereignty. South Korea would also seek to cooperate and collaborate with North Korea whenever reasonable.

The well-intentioned policy fell apart almost immediately: South Korea wanted to offer North Korea a shipment of fertilizer. In exchange, South Korea wanted to construct a reunion facility for families that had been split by the armistice between the two nations. North Korea, predictably, viewed this askance.

Had the visit gone as planned, former First Lady Lee would have been the first South Korean (of any stripe) to meet with Supreme Leader. She had been invited last year but could not travel due to pneumonia; Kim Jong Un extended the invitation once more on Christmas Eve, with the urgent message, “We desire better relations between the North and South,” and dates were set.

Lee has visited the DPRK three times in total, most recently to pay respects at the funeral of Dear Leader, December 2011. Neither she nor any of her 18-person entourage made this trip in any diplomatic function: the visit was strictly personal to Kim Jong Un. When neither he nor his party secretary (who delivered the missive) met her, she made the rounds of the usual monuments and a hospital.

On Tuesday, August 11, Lee received a bomb threat the day before she was to return to South Korea. An unnamed group threatened to blow up her plane, but the plane has been searched and no explosives were found, so she will continue on her flight unabated. The statement this group released to the media sounds as though the would-be conspirators are South Korean conservatives, accusing her and her late husband of using South Korean taxpayers’ money to supply North Korea with weapons, enabling the DPRK to sustain the conflict between the two nations. Incidentally, it was the conservatives who took power in 2008, a year before her husband’s demise, when they elected President Lee Myung-bak.

Flights between North and South Korea are particularly rare, usually forbidden in favor of rail travel. Flying to Pyongyang from Beijing is no trouble at all, which is how most pleasure-seeking, entitled Westerners approach it.

This Saturday marks the North Korean holiday, National Liberation Day. This is when the DPRK’s new time zone officially comes into effect.

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