My Dinner with Jalal

Remembering better times with Iraq's stricken president.

I only met Jalal Talabani a few times, but each time was an unforgettable experience. Hania Mufti, my former colleague at Human Rights Watch, and I had crossed clandestinely into Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran in late 2002, as the winds of the Second Gulf War were gathering force. It was a rough journey, through areas still ravaged from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. So it was a relief to arrive in the mountain city of Sulaimaniya, the stronghold of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), bitter rival to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, based in Erbil. The Speaker of the PUK parliament, Adnan Mufti, welcomed us at the spartan hotel, pledging us his personal driver and handing over one of his cell phones, offering us any kind of assistance he could. Stunned by the hospitality, I turned to Hania and asked what was happening. "I saved his life a few years ago," she said nonchalantly.  "When Saddam tried to poison them all."

A few days later, we drove even higher into the mountains to Talabani's safe house. In between, we had met most of the PUK leadership and documented the massive displacement caused from the city of Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein's ongoing "Arabization" program of the disputed city. Now we were going to meet the big man -- and what a giant of a man he was.

Walking past the guards with truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, we entered a large banquet hall and found almost the entire PUK leadership gathered. At the head of the table was a short and very rotund man, known to everyone as Mam Jalal, next to his extremely thin, chain-smoking wife, Hero. Because of Human Rights Watch's work on the Anfal genocide against the Kurds, we were honored guests, and I was seated at Mam Jalal's right side.

Given Mam Jalal's girth, the chef had prepared him special low-fat kebabs, which he proceeded to devour at an impressive speed. Having worked for years in the Middle East, I had prepared myself for a formal occasion, trying to remember all the rules of proper conduct. Instead, I found myself in a crowd of jovial, often rambunctious friends who had been through hell and back together. At one point, Adnan Mufti, the speaker of parliament, came over with a big grin on his face and presented Mam Jalal with a set of calculations on a piece of paper, demonstrating that despite his low-fat kebabs, he had still eaten more fat than anyone at the table. Then someone told a joke about Mam Jalal meeting an old drunk on the streets of Sulaimaniya and trying to convince him that he, in fact, was really the president of Kurdistan.

The pre-war mood in much of Iraqi Kurdistan was jubilant like this, believing that the coming U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq would bring an end to their suffering and a new beginning -- maybe even a fulfillment of the Kurds's age-old dream of an independent state. Mam Jalal, who in many ways embodied that hope, spoke at length that night about his vision for the future, and didn't seem to mind it a bit when we probed him on some of the abuses committed in Kurdistan by forces under his command, like the secret and abusive detention of suspected Islamists.

A friend had given me a useful tip: when you meet Talabani, prepare just a few questions, and he'll talk forever. When you meet Massoud Barzani, leader of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, prepare a lot of questions, because the answers will be very short. My friend was right.

It was a meeting to remember. It is difficult now to recall those days of high hope when you look at the devastation the ill-planned 2003 invasion of Iraq left behind, and the challenges that still lay ahead in repairing the damage. The Kurdish region managed to avoid much of the brutal sectarianism that destroyed so many thousands of lives in other parts of Iraq, but its own issues are far from resolved. The tensions between Baghdad and the regional Kurdish administration remain on a knife-edge over the degree of autonomy that should be granted to the Kurds, the division of the proceeds of the oil resources found in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the future of the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds depict as their Jerusalem but which Arabs and Turkmen claim with equal fervor. An entire swath of Iraqi territory from the Iranian to the Syrian borders remains "disputed territory," with many of Iraq's minorities -- like the Christians and Yazidis -- squeezed in the middle of a power dispute. Tensions often run so high they could easily spill over into open conflict.

After becoming president of a post-Saddam Iraq in 2005, Talabani often tried to serve as a moral compass for a country mired in bloodshed. He refused to sign off on executions -- even that of his arch-enemy Saddam Hussein -- citing his personal opposition to capital punishment. Ultimately, a compromise was reached where his deputies signed the execution orders, resolving the deadlock. Today, Iraq sadly is one of the world's leaders in executions, which are often imposed on people who were convicted in unfair trials. 

Inside Kurdistan, all is not well either. Corruption is rife, as are abuses by the security forces, leaving a population restless with unfilled hopes and grievances. When the Arab Spring began, Talabani's PUK actually moved tanks into the streets of Sulaimaniya to intimidate protesters into going back home -- but leaving the need for democratic change and accountable governance unaddressed.

Mam Jalal didn't get to enjoy much of the post-war changes in Iraqi Kurdistan. As president of Iraq, he spent most of his time trying to be a peacemaker between the warring sectarian sides. It is a testimony to his character and personality that he continued to enjoy the respect of so many even during the darkest days in Iraq. He was a giant, in girth as well as in spirit. But he was just a man, and even a giant could be easily overwhelmed by the challenges posed by Iraq's sectarian war.

Sabah Arar-Pool/Getty Images


The Dictator's Daughter

The heir of a controversial South Korean autocrat is now the country's first female president. Can she emerge from his shadow?

In mid-November, a prominent South Korean wood-cut artist displayed a painting depicting conservative presidential candidate Park Geun-hye cringing as she gives birth to a baby resembling her father, the deceased dictator Park Chung-hee. Officials from Park's ruling Saenuri Party quickly responded, telling reporters that the work was an assault on women and resembled Nazi propaganda; nevertheless, the crass image resonated with some South Koreans. The artist, Hong Sung-dam, a former democracy activist, said the work was a commentary on how memories of Park Chung-hee continue to influence South Korean politics. "Park's supporters tend to blindly worship her as if she is a goddess … but that's not the way voters in a democratic society should support a politician," he told Agence France-Presse.

Park has just won the South Korean presidential election, but that does not mean she'll easily escape her father's divisive legacy, or her own complicated history. At a choir performance in 1974, the 22-year-old engineering student witnessed her mother, the then-first lady, get killed by an assassin acting under orders from North Korea; he had been aiming for her father. Because she was the eldest daughter, Park's first political position was to replace her mother in the ceremonial role of first lady. Five years later, South Korea's intelligence chief murdered her father. Park disappeared from the public eye; she spent the rest of the 20th century running a lineup of charities and offering the occasional television interview.

But over the past decade and a half, the unmarried admirer of Queen Elizabeth I has engineered a remarkable political rise, cultivating an image as a reserved and morally upright leader. From 1998 until May 2012, she served as a national assemblywoman in Daegu, a southeastern city that was long her father's support base. In 2004, after the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) faced a public relations crisis for its failed attempt to impeach South Korea's president, party elders appointed Park as its chairwoman and de facto spokeswoman. In May 2006, while Park was stumping for a Seoul mayoral candidate, a man jumped on stage and slashed her face with a box cutter. Her steadfastness and bravery -- she spent a week in the hospital and took no time off from campaigning -- helped her party win back the majority in 2006 and earned her the nickname "Election Queen."

In 2007, however, her growing popularity wasn't yet sufficient to land her the GNP's presidential nomination, which the party instead gave to her rival, Lee Myung-bak, who was seen as a more experienced and pragmatic candidate. So Park went on to lead a separate GNP faction, somewhat outside the party mainstream. Over the next four years, she tried to separate her persona from Lee, who was gradually garnering disapproval from the public.

In early 2012, the GNP, struggling with low approval ratings and stung by several corruption scandals, decided Park would once again be its savior. Re-christened the "New Frontier Party" and helmed by Park, it won 40 percent of the seats in this April's legislative elections -- a surprise victory for a party that many feared was withering into irrelevance.

The stern and steely Park's rise to power is now complete -- she was elected South Korea's first female president on Wednesday, but the race was closer than many once thought. In the days leading up to the vote, polls had Park only 1.5 to 3.5 percentage points ahead of her liberal challenger, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, compared with a 7.5-point lead in early December. Unlike Moon, who wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy, Park resisted calling for corporate tax increases while promising an expansion of the welfare state, a hazily defined platform she called "economic democracy." (Although both candidates condemned North Korea's Dec. 12 rocket launch, they both seemed willing to stand by their pledge to renew negotiations with Pyongyang.) But policy wasn't the biggest issue in this race.

Park was once considered a shoo-in, but her standing seemed to be wavering because her father's legacy has alienated a young generation of urbanites who've grown up with democracy -- and who feel indifferent to the dictatorial era. During the 1970s, the elder Park faced a flaring protest movement but did not live to see the country's first democratic elections in 1987. Today, the left continues to be inimical toward Park the elder, attacking his daughter by association. This July, her approval rating fell when she defended her father, saying that he "made the unavoidable, best possible choice" in launching his 1961 coup d'état, though she reiterated an earlier apology to victims of her father's rule. During his brutish reign from 1961 to 1979, Park the elder imprisoned political opponents, often claiming they were "communists" who sympathized with North Korea. Nevertheless, older voters still tend to admire Park for fostering South Korea's economic growth by encouraging exports and building up the conglomerates, or chaebol, so important to the country's economy.

South Korea has done well. It is now the world's 14th-largest economy, boasting a per capita GDP of $31,200. Citizens, however, are fed up with corruption in politics and the chaebol, which account for nearly half of South Korea's GDP. Park's intraparty rival, current President Lee Myung-bak, is the former CEO of the chaebol Hyundai Engineering and Construction; remarks like his January warning against curbing the power of South Korea's conglomerates have led to criticisms that he's too close to big business. Park's success at the polls came down to undecided, middle-aged voters valuing the uprightness that her campaign had been trying to communicate, and overlooking her family's history of despotism.

Park's campaign struggled with maintaining that necessary image of incorruptibility. In early October, her former campaign co-manager confessed to taking almost $27,000 in illegal donations from a businessman before April's legislative elections. Then, on Oct. 26, the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper claimed it had secretly recorded a conversation between the public relations chief of an influential news broadcaster, MBC, and the chairman of the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation, a trust that owns stakes in the media outlet. Park ran the foundation as chairwoman from 1994 to 2005, and the newspaper claimed that the two executives discussed a plan to sell stakes in the outlet and put the proceeds toward helping her bid. (Both MBC and the foundation have denied the claims, and prosecutors are looking into whether the Hankyoreh illegally recorded the conversation.)

Whether or not the allegations are true, what makes the scandal sting is that in 2010, South Korea's now-defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with unearthing crimes under Park the elder's dictatorship, determined that he had forcibly appropriated the foundation's predecessor from a businessman in 1961. Park responded, unconvincingly, that because she headed the group, she knows it is "cleaner than the other foundations out there." None of this destines Park to failure. But now that Park is a democratically elected president in a country once firmly ruled by her father, the question is whether she can convincingly emerge from his shadow.

Eds.: This article has been updated to reflect the results of the South Korean presidential elections on Oct. 19.