[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Hope for democracy; business giant succumbsMarch 21, 1998
The year 1998 opened an era of hope for democracy activists, with Kim Dae-jung taking office in February after winning the December 1997 presidential election. But he was not welcomed by every sector of society. For those who were on favorable terms with Mr. Kim’s opponents, his election was bad news. Kwon Yeong-hae, a former head of the country’s intelligence service, was one such person and he attempted suicide on this date.
As head of the National Security Planning Agency in past administrations, Mr. Kwon allegedly masterminded dirty tricks against Mr. Kim. One particularly useful strategy to kill a politician’s career was to tar him as pro-North Korean and, as such, an enemy of the state. Mr. Kwon as the head of the NSPA, and in cahoots with past military regimes, was allegedly tasked to implement a strategy named “bukpung” or “the storm from the North.”
After the start of the new Kim administration, Mr. Kwon was charged with abuse of power by the prosecution. Although he remained silent, both the governing and opposition parties shared the sentiment that Mr. Kwon did play a role.
To get him to talk, prosecutors questioned him in relays for 13 hours, which ended early in the morning on this date. They took a break and on their return found Mr. Kwon collapsed on the floor after attempting to disembowel himself with a knife he had hidden in his Bible. The cut was five centimeters (two inches) deep and so he was transferred to a nearby hospital, where he spent weeks, shunning prosecutors’ questions. Mr. Kwon later told his lawyer that he’d keep silent forever, saying, “A vanquished general has nothing to say except for death.”
March 21, 2001
Chung Ju-young, the founder of the Hyundai Group, died on this date. Mr. Chung had been hospitalized with acute pneumonia, which in the end took his life.
Born in 1915 to a hard-up farming family in Tongcheon, now in North Korea, Mr. Chung was a legendary self-made man with an eventful career. He fled to Seoul at the age of 18, secretly taking money his father had saved from selling a cow. He was the eldest son of a family of seven brothers and sisters and his father wanted him to take over the farm, but that was the last thing on his mind. “I was so fed up with being poor. So I just had to come to Seoul,” Mr. Chung later recalled.
He might not have had much, but he had determination and the will to make things happen. First starting a part-time job as a rice deliveryman in Seoul, he started to make the seed money to open a car repair shop in 1946, which later became the conglomerate Hyundai Motor.
Then he began expanding his business into construction, and found a turning point in his career with the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. His brother worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, which helped him to build quarters for the army to accommodate 100,000 soldiers. Mr. Chung later said of the job, “After working hard for one month, I found my room full of money.” From then on, his career went smoothly, with the development-driven military regime supporting Mr. Chung. His Hyundai grew into a leading company.
His passion, however, did not end with business, as he later showed an interest in politics. Establishing the Tongil Gukmin (Reunification and People) Party in 1992, he even ran for the presidency, only to fail for the first time in his life. With the arrival of the 1990s, his business also showed symptoms of financial trouble.
After withdrawing from politics, however, he kept his finger in business in North Korea, as in the Mount Geumgang resort. In 1998, he took 1,001 cows to North Korea, saying he had worked hard ever since leaving home with the money from selling a cow. “Now I’m going back home, turning one cow into 1,001.”
He left autobiographies, such as one titled “There Might Be Hardships, But Never a Failure.” His funeral cost more than 2.8 billion won ($2.8 million), with more than 3,500 mourners, including a number of the country’s influential figures.
by Chun Su-jin