From One Leader to Another, by Way of a Third: Putin’s Gift to Park Geun-hye

By | September 27, 2016 | No Comments

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin is fond of playing up his macho, ex-KGB persona to both Russian citizenry and the world at large, he is also capable of turning on the personal charm. Examples range from developing a rapport with former US President George W. Bush, who later claimed to have seen into Putin’s soul, to embarrassing gaffes such as wrapping a shawl around the wife of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In another instance of Putin’s charm succeeding, he recently made a personal connection with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. At a meeting between the two heads of state in Vladivostok, Putin presented Park with a piece of calligraphy that her father, former President Park Chung-hee, produced in 1979.

Seoul’s bilateral relationship with Moscow has grown in leaps and bounds since the establishment of formal diplomatic links in 1991, on the heels of the receding Cold War. Aside from trade, areas of bilateral cooperation include aerospace; Russia facilitated the first South Korean astronaut’s entry into space when Yi So-yeon boarded Soyuz in 2008. A more recent breakthrough concerns the implementation of a visa-free regime, whereby citizens of the two states can visit the other for up to 60 days at a time. On the other hand, however, tensions between Moscow and Seoul are also beset by the thorny issue of THAAD, meaning that any diplomatic move, however small, has the potential to ameliorate the missile defense spat and strengthen ties.

While pragmatic considerations like economics and security will always win the day in international relations, there is much to appreciate about the power of the personal touch in diplomacy, not least between national leaders. One that easily comes to mind is the personal rapport between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which no doubt had an impact on UK-US relations during the twilight of the Cold War. Relationships like that are based in part on personal chemistry (no doubt aided by similar political inclinations); in the case of Reagan and Thatcher, their friendship was strong enough to withstand the US-led invasion of Grenada in 1983, which drew Thatcher’s great displeasure. Of course, Putin at this point lacks that kind of strong personal relationship with Park, as proven by Russian reticence to follow South Korean requests vis-a-vis sanctioning the DPRK. Nevertheless, his gift, while insufficient to tip the balance in favor of stronger ties, will probably not be forgotten in the last two years of Park’s presidency.

The piece of calligraphy done by Park Chung-hee in 1979, which was presented to Park Geun-hye by Vladimir Putin on September 4. | Image: Blue House

The piece of calligraphy done by Park Chung-hee in 1979 that was presented to Park Geun-hye by Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on September 4. | Image: Blue House

“Oleg Kiryanov. South Korea speaks of Vladimir Putin’s “Personal Gift” to Park Geun-hye“[Южная Корея рассказала о “личном порядке” Владимира Путина Пак Кын Хэ]. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 5, 2016.

Seoul has revealed interesting details from the Russia-South Korea summit that took place in Vladivostok on September 3rd. According to the president of South Korea’s office, in addition to a formal gift in keeping with diplomatic protocol, Vladimir Putin presented Park Geun-hye with a personal gift that flattered her.

On September 3rd in Vladivostok, after concluding a business lunch the President of the Russian Federation told [South Korea’s] leader that he wanted to give her a special gift. “This is not an official gift, this is my personal gift to you” the presidential administration quotes Vladimir Putin as saying, speaking of the negotiations and Park’s trip to Vladivostok. The gift, it turns out, relates directly to Mrs. Park. Vladimir Putin presented her with the last New Year’s wishes of her father, who personally wrote it on the occasion in 1979.

We should recall that Park Geun-hye’s father, the famous Park Chung-hee led the country from 1961 up until his murder at the hands of one of his officials on October 26, 1979.

As has come to light, it was Park Chung-hee’s custom at New Year’s to beautifully write his main wishes in hieroglyphics, which he would then put in a frame. In 1979 he chose four hieroglyphics [총화전진], which can be roughly translated as “Through the cohesion of the people, let us move forward.”1)Inverting the two halves of the original yields a simpler variation, “Advance united”. It so happens that this was the last of this type of writing.

It turns out that this relic had a special fate. “After the death of President Park Chung-hee this writing made its way to the United States, where a Korean-American bought it. We found it in an American market and purchased it. As far as I know, this is the only surviving piece of his writing of this type. I think it has a special significance for you, and therefore I’d like to offer it to you as a gift,” Vladimir Putin told the South Korean president. Park Geun-hye, according to her inner circle, was very touched.

Judging by photographs published in the South Korean media, the text of the missive written by President Park 37 years ago reads as follows: “Through the cohesion of our people, let us move forward. Here’s to the New Year of 1979. President of the Republic of Korea, Park Chung-hee”. The writing was framed and covered with glass, and was contained in a red wooden case, with an explanation on the side in English.

Vladimir Putin has stated that the gift has a special, symbolic meaning. “As written here, I would like for our two countries to move forward together in the future” he said. The words and the gift itself drew the interest of the South Korean media as an offer from Moscow to move relations to a new bilateral level of cooperation.

However, as it turn out, Mrs. Park at that time managed to surprise the Russian president when she gave a personal gift to Putin’s younger daughter Ekaterina around the 2016 New Year’s holiday. “We were very pleasantly surprised and touched. Ekaterina is very shy, and so she asked me to send you her sincerest thanks, not daring to write a letter” the Russian president said when he gave President Park the calligraphy gift.

Source: “Oleg Kiryanov. South Korea speaks of Vladimir Putin’s “Personal Gift” to Park Geun-hye “[Южная Корея рассказала о “личном порядке” Владимира Путина Пак Кын Хэ]. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 5, 2016. Translation by Anthony Rinna.

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1. Inverting the two halves of the original yields a simpler variation, “Advance united”.