A pivotal speech and a daring tripJune 29, 1987
June 1987 was the eye of a political whirlpool in Korean history. After decades of military regimes, the people’s patience had reached its limit. It burst its seams in the historic June 10 uprising, which involved not only student activists but office workers and housewives as well.
In the wake of the uprising, it was clear that the times had changed even for then-President Chun Doo Hwan and his closest subordinate, Roh Tae-woo. Mr. Chun’s term in office was drawing to a close, while Mr. Roh was gearing up for the Blue House. Back then, Korea chose a president through indirect elections, meaning that Mr. Roh’s victory the following year was a matter of course. The uprising seemed to have changed things. Then came Mr. Roh’s bombshell declaration on this date.
Around noon, Mr. Roh appeared before the press with some pieces of paper. Then he made a surprise announcement, saying, “I hope this can be a turning point in making a great country.” He promised changes in many issues facing society, from amending the constitution to proposing direct elections to seeking amnesty for democracy activist Kim Dae-jung. Mr. Roh said he’d bring the issues up before then-President Chun, who, the following day, confirmed that Mr. Roh was the one in charge.
Putting aside the argument over whether Mr. Roh’s announcement actually contributed to Korea’s democratization, it was still a welcome surprise for the people. There was indeed a new presidential election system, under which Mr. Roh himself took over the Blue House the following February and gained a reputation as a speechmaker.
Decades later, Mrs. Chun, better known as Lee Sun-ja, wrote in her memoirs that the June 29 Announcement had been initiated by her husband; Mr. Roh was just a puppet. This rubbed Mr. Roh the wrong way, tarnishing the relationship between the longtime political partners.
June 29, 1989
Im Su-gyeong was a 22-year-old college student majoring in French when she dared to leave for the forbidden land: North Korea. On this date, in the midst of a period when North and South Korea’s relationship was icy, Ms. Im landed at Sunan Airport in Pyeongyang and was greeted with a hearty welcome from locals. A student activist with the National Council of College Students’ Association, a pro-North Korean group, Ms. Im was there to take part in the Pyeongyang World Students’ Festival.
After flying to Tokyo with her South Korean passport, Ms. Im headed to East Berlin, where she boarded a plane bound for Pyeongyang. Ms. Im’s audacious visit caused a stir in South Korean society, with a barrage of voices rebuking the government for failing to keep the country safe. But the South Korean government was certainly capable of repressing leftist interests; it was just that Ms. Im’s visit to Pyeongyang had been planned with extreme secrecy. The government arrested some student activists who had planned the visit, but was too late to stop Ms. Im.
In Pyeongyang, Ms. Im was received cordially, as a heroic figure. After a 48-day stay, Ms. Im returned home via Panmunjeom. Not surprisingly, she was ejected from school, blacklisted and imprisoned. Ms. Im later went to the United States to study at Cornell University. Now back in Seoul, she’s engaged in a variety of social activism.
by Chun Su-jin