South Korea’s Governors of Northern Provinces Don’t-And Never Will-Govern

South Korea’s Governors of Northern Provinces Don’t—And Never Will—Govern

Appointed Officials Have Perks and Offices but Don’t Enter the North

ALASTAIR GALE and KWANWOO JUN

Updated March 17, 2014 10:32 p.m. ET

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Park Kee-jung, shown in his office, was appointed governor of North Hamgyong Province in North Korea’s northeast last year. Kwanwoo Jun/The Wall Street Journal

SEOUL—When Park Yong-ok retired as governor of a Korean province last year, he forfeited the perks of a top government job, including a luxury sedan with a chauffeur.

But his biggest regret was never going to the province during his four-year tenure.

He recalls his appointment at South Korea’s presidential office in 2009.

“Governor Park, what are you doing here? You should be in Pyongyang, not here in Seoul!” then-President Lee Myung-bak joked.

“I spoke right back to the president with a laugh: ‘Yes sir, I am preparing now to go to Pyongyang.’ ”

Mr. Park, 71 years old, was one of five governors assigned by South Korea to head provinces in North Korea—appointments that Seoul has made since the division of the Korean peninsula after World War II.

It may sound about as likely as having a Mexican governor of Texas, but it is part of Seoul’s continued claim—written into the South Korean constitution—to be the legitimate government of the entire Korean peninsula.

In South Korea, the governors spend much of their time in a cavernous, white five-story government building in the foothills of Mount Bukhan in northern Seoul, the official home for the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces, a body set up by South Korean President Syngman Rhee in 1949.

Park Kee-jung, also 71, was appointed governor of North Hamgyong Province in North Korea’s northeast last year but admits that there isn’t much to do each day.

The monthly work plan posted on his office website showed that Mr. Park, who isn’t related to Park Yong-ok, had a total of five scheduled events—four meetings and one seminar—to attend in February.

“If there are scheduled events, I take part. Otherwise, I just read books,” Mr. Park said, walking to his dark brown mahogany desk on which his mother-of-pearl name plate is neatly placed. He took out a book that he is reading at work these days containing biographies or short essays by people originally from his province.

The jobs that the governors do are mostly ceremonial or supportive of North Korea refugees from their provinces. They attend various social events—seminars, sports gatherings and cultural festivals—for North Koreans. A basement gym in the committee building is used for dance practice ahead of festivals.

An estimated 8.5 million North Koreans and their dependents live in South Korea. Most of the first generation of them escaped their communist-ruled homeland during the Korean War.

The governors, whose tenure is decided by the president, all originate from North Korea but fled during or after the turmoil of the war.

The governors gather for meetings every Monday at a small room along one of the corridors in the committee building.

“If there are no particular issues to discuss, they just chat over tea,” said Cho Iue-chul, director of the committee, which employs a handful of full-time staff.

The government provides the governors with the same benefits as vice-ministers in central government, including an annual salary of as much as $100,000. The governors also have had a total of 97 “honorary” city mayors or county chiefs named to symbolically represent their provinces, but those are largely volunteer positions with only basic expenses paid.

North Korea bristles at any suggestion that Seoul should govern the North and has its own claim on the full peninsula. The two countries remain technically in a state of war, having never signed a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Koreans can’t travel freely to the North and government officials rarely visit, although the five governors are unlikely to be on any guest list. North Korean state media has labeled the governors as “odds and ends”—a Korean term denoting a fool.

“The Pyongyang leadership probably hates the five governors the most, which makes me even more proud of myself having served as one,” Park Yong-ok said.

China maintains a similar system of appointing members to its top decision-making body, the National People’s Congress, to represent Taiwan, which it considers a province of China but is governed as an independent country.

Like most Koreans, the governors look forward to eventual reunification of the peninsula. But they also know that would mean they would be out of a job.

Mr. Cho explains that under the Seoul government’s contingency plans, the five governors are required to resign if North Korea collapses in order for a new South Korean body to be set up to administer the North under the leadership of South Korea’s unification minister.

North Korea’s surprise execution of dictator Kim Jong Un’s uncle spurred emergency meetings at South Korea’s Unification Ministry and other government agencies—but not among the governors.

“We do not deal with North Korean affairs. That’s up to the Unification Ministry,” Park Yong-ok said.

The longer the two Koreas remain separated, the tougher it will be for Seoul to find candidates who originate from North Korea to keep the governor positions filled.

“The first generation of North Koreans living in South Korea are mostly in their 80s. If I go to their gatherings, I feel like an adolescent,” said Park Kee-jung.

The governors are also like other government officials who worry about declining interest among affluent South Koreans for reunification, because of the sacrifices that would have to be made to support the impoverished North. But for them the symbolism of the committee and their own posts are worth maintaining.

“This is an expression of our strong will to recover North Korean territory,” said Park Yong-ok, who was governor of South Pyongan province, which includes the capital city, Pyongyang.

At the same time, Mr. Park sees the funny side of being a governor of a province he couldn’t visit.

“Whenever I met with foreigners while in office, I often made a joke: Kim Jong Un is one of the citizens under my jurisdiction,” he says.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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