Laney bids farewell to the Koreas,
with healing still a dream

American ambassadors here have often been seen as Machiavellian figures in a web of spies and military intrigue, the kind who might approve a coup or authorize a bout of political repression between courses at the banquet table.

[Former Emory President] James T. Laney, 69, an academic and ordained Methodist minister, does not quite fit that image.

"One day he came into the room with tears in his eyes," recalled his wife, Berta Laney, referring to the time in 1994 when it seemed that the United States and North Korea were coming close to war. "He said all of a sudden it had dawned on him that he was responsible for all the Americans living here.

"He said he felt strongly burdened, that he would never want any of them hurt, or to make a decision that would endanger their lives. The heaviness of it has been draining."

Now Laney is leaving that heaviness behind, quitting in early February after more than three tumultuous years as ambassador [t]here. He leaves as his legacy not only a more human image of American envoys but also a very different policy toward the Korean Peninsula.

When Laney took up his position in 1993, the United States was generally committed to shunning North Korea. These days, arguably more because of Laney than anyone else, Washington is broadly committed to engaging North Korea and luring it out of its isolation.

"I think history will see him as the first ambassador to the whole peninsula," rather than just to the southern half, said Stephen W. Linton, an American specialist on Korea.

Ambassadors normally administer policies created in Washington to the country they are posted in, but Laney ended up helping reshape a policy to another country: North Korea. Officials say this happened in part because the foreign policy establishment in Washington was concerned about North Korea but did not have a clear idea how to treat it, while Laney was a Korea hand who argued forcefully for a particular policy: engagement.

Laney first came to Korea 50 years ago this month, for a tour as a young Army intelligence officer, and he fell in love with the Korean people. He returned with his wife to spend another five years in Seoul in the late 1950s and early 1960s, teaching at Yonsei University, and Korea remained an important part of his life after he returned to America and rose to become president of Emory.

"The doughtiness of the Korean spirit just can't be vanquished-that and the warmth," Laney said, reflecting on Korea's attractions to him. "There's an outgoingness, an engaging quality about people here that gets to you, becomes part of you."

Laney's longtime affection for Korea makes him unusual as an ambassador here, for most of his predecessors have been security specialists or China hands or Japan experts. The embassy says Laney is the first American ambassador to Seoul who can speak Korean, and his ability to make occasional speeches in Korean has warmed Korean hearts.

Indeed, Laney sounds like a Korean when he speaks of the division of the peninsula into North and South Korea as almost a moral affront. Mrs. Laney, explaining why her husband took the job as ambassador, pointed to precisely that issue.

"He really has been saddened over the division, and he thought that maybe, maybe, maybe, he could help bring the two together," Mrs. Laney said. "I think that was his dream."

Some South Koreans suggest that under Laney the United States is neglecting its friends in Seoul to make a deal with the North. Some critics of the engagement policy have called it appeasement.

Strains between Seoul and Washington grew so sharply last year over policy toward the North and other issues that an American official recently complained that the difference between the Koreas is that "North Korea trusts us."

Yet there has been surprisingly little resentment against Laney himself, and in public-indeed, mostly in private as well-South Korean and North Korean officials alike speak highly of him.

"He's been one of the most effective American ambassadors we've had in Korea," said Song Young Shik, a deputy foreign minister.

As Laney returns to the United States, with an office at Emory from which he will continue to follow Korea, what he takes back above all is a vivid impression of the importance in Korea of education-and a wish that Americans might learn from that.

"The thing that is so impressive is the high priority that education has in all Korean families," Laney said. "Obviously they have ability, but it is coupled with that determination and that discipline that the family imbues, and I stand in great respect of that. It's such a contrast with the laissez-faire attitude with which most families in the United States approach education."

Asked if he intends, on his return to Atlanta, to crack a whip over his own 15 grandchildren, Laney smiled benignly.

"I have that in mind," he said.

-Nicholas D. Kristof

Copyright © 1997 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.

Editor's note: Former Emory President James T. Laney is back in the United States and Atlanta. His office will be located in the Ethics Center, but he may not spend much time there anytime soon. "My calendar is very full of some lectures that I had committed to and some consultations in Washington," he said. He and Berta his wife are "trying to readjust to life back here" in the States. So far, he hasn't cracked the whip over his grandchildren, but he has seen several of their basketball games.

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