Q: Why did you go back to Seoul with Kim Dae Jung?
A: Remember, I visited him under house arrest in Korea in 1974. I wrote the first international report on human rights in Korea, also in 1974. In 1980 when he was sentenced to death, I was instrumental in asking the State Department to intervene to get his sentence commuted to 20 years' imprisonment. All my professional life, I have been fighting for the right of people to return to their own country and to participate in the political process.
Q: Did you think Kim was going to get killed?
A: No, I did not. There were sufficient guarantees negotiated by the United States government and by Kim to assure everyone he would be protected. He was assured he could come back to his country.
Q: But you obviously thought an escort was also useful.
A: I was co-chairman with [former ambassador to Japan] Edwin Reischauer and [former assistant secretary of state] Patt Derian and Peggy Billings of the National Council of Churches of a committee to ensure his safe return. Having solicited a lot of political support for guarantees for him, it was a logical thing that I, being a lawyer and the only lawyer in the group, went along.
Q: We're at the airport. What did you see of that scene?
A: We were asked to stay on the plane until the regular passengers left. As we left, there's an L-shaped ramp, with the bottom of the L about 10 or 15 feet long, and then you make a 90 degree right turn to go up the rest of the ramp into the terminal. I was at the beginning of the line, and I let Kim, two Korean-American friends and two congressmen [Edward F. Feighan (D-Ohio) and Thomas M. Foglietta (D- Pa.)] and Patt Derian and [former ambassador] Bob White pass me, and one or two others, and then I fell in line.
As I got to the 90-degree turn, opposite me was a curtain that opened up, and about 20 or 25 Koreans came out in a flying wedge and severed the line and pinned us up against the bulkhead. So we were effectively restrained from continuing down the ramp any further, whereas the rest were continuing to walk down the ramp. When they got to the end, that group was severed by removing Kim from that group and putting him in an elevator and taking him to a separate room. They processed his immigration papers and then immediately took him in a private car with his wife and the two Korean-American friends to his home.
Q: Was what the Koreans did according to your understanding of the arrival plan?
A: No, it was contrary to an arrangement made by our advance party with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the Korean government: Kim was to proceed normally. With a few others he would go into one car and be taken home, and we would follow in a sort of minibus. That plan was aborted by the Korean government: They made this decision to sever us from Kim and take Kim directly home without letting us accompany him.
Q: So in addition to the rough stuff there was this breaking of a prior agreement?
A: That's right.
Q: The party went to Kim's house.
A: The rest of us, except for Patt Derian, White and the two congressmen, went through normal immigration channels. They went through faster because they were met at the bottom of an escalator by representatives of the U.S. Embassy, and were taken in a car, which I understand was provided by the Korean foreign ministry, to Kim's house. I was the first one through immigration in my group so I hopped on a press bus, which took me directly to Kim's house.
When I arrived there, I met White, Derian, Foglietta and Feighan, who said that the Korean secret police would not allow them to enter. They were calling the U.S. ambassador to get some help to see Kim. I said to Bob White or Bob White said to me, "Let's go down to Kim's house and see what we can do." I sent my card in through a Korean secret service agent. I said Kim was a client of mine and I wanted to see him. A few minutes later the agent came out and said, "All right, you can come in and take your friend in" -- Bob White. There was Kim and his wife and the two Korean-American friends together with some relatives.
Q: Was he upset? Had he been hurt?
A: Not a bit. The first thing that I asked him was, "How are you, Kim? What happened?" He said, "Well, they pushed me into an elevator." I said, "There's a lot of allegations that you were punched, kicked, beaten up." "Oh," he said, "no, that didn't happen." He said he was pushed, and they were a little rough, and he was forced into this elevator and they put him through an immigration process where he refused to cooperate because they weren't treating him as an ordinary Korean. After 45 minutes, they gave up.
I asked his wife, Mrs. Kim, whom I've known for years -- a frail little person, a lovely person -- if she was punched or hit or beaten up in any way, and she said no. And then I asked the two Korean Americans -- this is all in the presence of Bob White -- if they were hurt, and they said absolutely no, that there was a lot of jostling and pushing and shoving, but they weren't hurt.
Q: What is Kim's political status now? Because surely you didn't go to all this trouble just to stow him away in house arrest or to leave him exposed to further danger.
A: House arrest in Korea is a funny institution. There's no such thing as house arrest under Korean law. Kim certainly is detained, prevented from leaving his house. But he's allowed to receive visitors. He has two telephones and can contact his various political associates. One of the first things he did while I was there was to call Kim Young Sam, who's one of the chief opposition figures and who's also under house arrest, if you want to call it that, and exchange political strategies and information.
So it's a kind of Korean thing. He's been in this condition, off and on, for many years. He is physically contained, but he's allowed to see reporters, give interviews, make political comments, call his compatriots in the fight for democracy in Korea, and he does all that.
Q: What is Korea's, the country's, political status now? A police state? Something becoming better? What about those assembly elections last Tuesday in which the party that Kim is hooked up with won 50 seats? Does that show an improving trend or is that a mirage?
A: When you dig through all the charades of the constitution and the laws and assembly, Korea is being governed by a military dictatorship. It hides behind a constitution rigged in such a way that the ruling party cannot lose power. If you look at the recent elections, you'll see that they've only lost one seat from the last election.
But I don't think there's ever been a freer political debate in contemporary Korean history. More candidates ran, the debate was wide open, they criticized their government, a lot of people who were banned were allowed to get back into politics. A new political party was formed, and it received an unbelievable number of seats.
Now where is that going to lead? Does that mean democracy's going to come back to Korea tomorrow? I don't think so.
Q: What limits the possibility that debate will become a democracy?
A: The constitution prevents it. It is rigged in such a way that it's impossible to have a democratic state.
Q: Even though you can have a lot of fancy debate.
A: All the debate you want but the ruling party cannot fall below 57 percent of the deputies.
Q: How does that line get crossed?
A: I don't know. There are two ways. The peaceful process and a violent process. One of the most important things in this peaceful process that addresses itself to change is the provision of the constitution that says the president can only serve one term. That term expires in 1988. And if [President Chun Doo Hwan] steps down and if Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam and the opposition get a fair shot -- that's what they're all aiming for -- the chances for the democratic process will be improved immeasurably.
Q: Kim is in for the long game.
A: Either he's in for the long game or he wants to be the elder statesman who unifies the opposition and the forces of democracy.
Q: Should we Americans just observe and watch these internal processes churning in Korea and in other hard places? Where does the United States fit in?
A: The United States is extremely important: It maintains 45,000 troops in the peninsula of Korea, and it's a strategic part of the world for our anti-communist or anti- Russian containment policy. Seoul is 700 miles from Peking, 700 from Tokyo, 700 from Vladivostock, and it's considered by military experts to be extremely strategic for the defense of the United States. That's where our defense perimeter starts. Korea is an anchor of our defense line, and it has a lot to do with whether or not the Japanese should be armed or not armed. So the strategic interests of the United States dominate.
Hopefully, if the democratic process survives, that would strengthen the stability of the country and add to the strength and stability of our defenses there.
Q: It's argued that the strategic importance of Korea to the United States prevents us from using too much influence there for liberalization.
A: Some look at the insertion of the democratic process as a stabilizing factor -- by removing confrontation and certain elements of instability from the society. In that way it would strengthen the strategic interests of the United States. That's the way I prefer to look at it.
Q: How do the people who run Korea look at it?
A: The present ruling party would be 100 percent against this thesis because they feel that traditionally in Korea the people have to be governed by authoritarian methods.
Q: We're talking here about some form of American political intervention to deal with human rights.
A: To the extent that it's gone ahead so far, you can give credit to United States intervention. The embassy there and the State Department have been working hard for a long time to help bring about democratization. I think they feel the way I do: that little by little they're gaining. How far the governing Koreans will allow this to proceed before they react, for instance, with a military coup is something we can't tell. Twice before they've had coups.
Q: You're suggesting that the Reagan administration is not, as its critics say, a part of the problem, but an active part of the solution.
A: I would think so, yes. I know for a fact that a great deal has been done on behalf of democracy in Korea even by the Reagan administration. I criticize them on occasion. For instance, in the Kim Dae Jung return, they made a mistake trying to talk Kim out of going back at this time. I don't think that was strategically a good move. I don't know why they tried to convince him to stay here until at least after the elections and after the [scheduled visit to Washington in April] of Chun. It probably results from some kind of negotiations with the Korean government. But Kim refused to go along with that offer, and he was back on the day he wanted, two days before the elections.
Q: The Reagan policy is sometimes called quiet diplomacy. Is that a fair description?
A: Somebody said quiet diplomacy is no diplomacy at all.
Q: What do you think?
A: I think there's plenty of room for quiet diplomacy. I've used it myself on many occasions and sometimes it works, but when it doesn't you have to go public.
Q: Are you suggesting that if the Reagan administration keeps on its present course that it's going to turn Korea even more toward democracy and to move it along without provoking a coup?
A: I don't know. We have found out after years of heartache that there's very little in the final analysis that the United States can do to bring about institutional change in a foreign country. That change, if it is to come, has to come from within, from people who are committed and who build their own institutions in line with their own culture and value system. The imposition of U.S. will abroad has severe limitations, and although we get symbolic concessions by getting people out of jail or better prison conditions or saving lives sometimes, we have never been able to bring about institutional change anywhere in the world. That has to come from people who live and die there.
Q: So if we're serious about democracy in Korea, we've got to be very patient.
A: We have to be patient, and we have to support local institutions that are fighting for that result. That's true everywhere in the world.
Q: Do some administrations do this better? What about Jimmy Carter as against Ronald Reagan?
A: Carter didn't invent human rights. Human rights have been part of the American fabric for an awful long time. In the early '70s, when Don Fraser (then a representative) of Minnesota held hearings on making human rights part of U.S. foreign policy, that was a legislative initiative. We've had to push our human rights policy through law and not to rely on chief executives.
When Carter became president, an awful lot had been done in the legislative field making human rights part of foreign policy. The assistant secretary of state for human rights was created by legislation. The whole prohibition against giving aid to egregious violators of human rights was legislation long before Carter. To give him credit, he put human rights on the international agenda. I often say, though, that what started with a historical bang ended with an embarrassed whimper. Things changed during the last years of the Carter administration.
Q: Is human rights still on the international agenda in the Reagan administration?
A: Yes, yes, thank goodness. Some of the pluses coming out of Reagan are that in the beginning they wanted to repeal the legislation and take out the assistant secretary of state for human rights. But after the Lefever defeat [Ernest Lefever's nomination as assistant secretary was rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] and before Elliott Abrams became assistant secretary, they made a decision to stick with it, to interpret it in accordance with their own views. I don't think that's as strong as during the Carter administration, but human rights is still institutionally part of our fabric, and it will be there forever, I think. It's a question of how it's to be applied and implemented.
Q: Could we help apply human rights better in Korea by, for instance, holding up the Chun visit or suspending our support for the Olympics in South Korea in 1988?
A: Experience in prior situations has revealed that boycotts and sanctions of that kind don't work. If push comes to shove in the Korean peninsula, the Koreans will have to tell the United States they cannot cooperate with us any further. I don't think that any country, especially strong countries -- Korea today is very strong, a 700,000-man army, a good economy; if you pushed them too far, they would react by not dealing with us. You'd have to weigh that against the security and trade interests of the United States, which are always part of the human rights equation.
Human rights is not something you look at in a vacuum. It has to be balanced out. Tradeoffs happen all the time. The fabric of human rights is very delicate.
Q: But worth trying to strengthen.
A: In my mind, yes.