A matter of principle
The author is a rotating correspondent and Tokyo bureau chief for the JoongAng Ilbo. The sight was absurd. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was seated at the head with a picture of the Saudi king at the back in a room at Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, while Samsung Electronics Executive Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, and Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Euisun Chung squeezed on a sofa. It looked as if the business leaders were politely waiting for an interview. The prince indeed acted as job interviewer, asking each of them what they wished to do in his kingdom.
The magnates had to take Covid-19 PCR test and leave their phones with their aides before they entered the room. The photo was exclusively released by Saudi state media. The last time the heir to the throne visited Seoul three years ago, he had separately met with five business leaders.
He has become more powerful and proud over the years. One local paper ran an article titled “bin Salman vs SK, Samsung, Hyundai Motor, and Lotte: Who will win?” It was an article on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia pitted against Busan for the 2030 World Expo as the Korea’s household business groups have been tasked with rooting for the home team against the oil kingdom. Local media referred to one of the richest men in the world as “Mr. Everything.”
Business-wise, the show made sense. There is no pride in business. Korea should be happy about striking 26 business deals during the crown prince’s one-day stay in Seoul. The deals could be worth 40 trillion won ($30 billion) if they go through. But the royalty had been accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Turkey has claimed that 15 Saudi secret agents tortured and killed the dissident inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The U.S. concluded that the prince had hatched a “conspiracy with premeditation” to kill Khashoggi after his outspokenness against the crown princess grew.
The Korean government pampering a person suspected of a heinous crime with red-carpet treatment is different from entrepreneurs chasing business opportunities. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo was dispatched to the airport to greet the crown prince.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a conversation with Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Euisun Chung and Hanwha Solutions Vice Chairman Kim Dong-kwan at Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, Nov. 17, on his trip to Korea last week. [SPA CAPTURE]
Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Won Hee-ryong followed the prince throughout his itinerary. President Yoon Suk-yeol invited him as the first guest to his new residence in Hannam-dong. He was given the highest welcome. In contrast, none from the government greeted U.S House Representative Nancy Pelosi when she stopped in Seoul after her trip to Taiwan. President Yoon away on vacation at the time talked to her on the phone. The crown prince reportedly told Seoul officials to go on his airplane to pick up gifts for them as he had left them on the plane.
The crown prince cancelled his trip to Japan at the last minute. He had planned to go straight to Tokyo after Seoul, but changed course to Thailand citing an earache and Japan’s demand for increased oil output. But according to multiple sources, the Saudi royalty had been unhappy about the ceremonial details. He had wanted a delegate from the Japanese royalty to meet him at the airport. The Japanese imperial household meets with heads of state selectively. Tokyo places common sense, principle and values ahead of money. Although he has not acted his vow to make the Saudi’s young ruler a “pariah” after the death of Khashoggi, U.S President Joe Biden turned down the offer of a meeting from Prince Mohammed at the G20 meeting in Bali, the first international event for the U.S. president following the midterm elections. A dignified nation should not throw away values under any circumstances.
South Korea can hype over a second Middle East boom and give a red-carpet treatment to the heir to the Saudi throne. It does not have to uphold human rights and freedom rigidly. But it must not be seen as drooling over oil money. Korea is no longer the poor country that had to work in the desert for hard cash 50 years ago. It is one of the world’s 10 largest economies today. The banners with pictures of the Saudi royalty — and local media reports gloating over the Saudi crown prince cancelling visit to Japan — could print the wrong values into the minds of younger Koreans.
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