[VIEWPOINT]Let sleeping ghosts lieThey have all retired from the official political stage but concern about a comeback of their style of politics is rising. They are the “Three Kims” ― the old guard in Korean politics ― former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung and political kingpin, Kim Jong-pil. Their frequent appearance on prime- time news nowadays makes the public wonder whether they are re-entering the political scene. Kim Jong-pil, the former head of the United Liberal Democrats, lent support to a move to merge the party with a new political party based in his bastion of Chungcheong provin-ces by meeting with leaders of the fledgling party. The news that Kim Young-sam had called Kim Dae-jung ignited rumors about a possible coalition of democracy activists-turned-politicians that had gone separate ways since the late 1980s.
Undoubtedly, former President and Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung, known as DJ, is at the center of the renewed interest in the three Kims. When the illegal wiretapping involving the National Intelligence Service during his administration was exposed, he was hospitalized because of ill health. As his influence in the political community is very much alive, his hospital room was occupied by a long line of visitors. Some local media dubbed this “sickroom politics.”
A follow-up to that is being played out in his living room. As the prosecution’s investigation into the wiretapping scandal nears conclusion, politicians are now frequenting there. The governing Uri Party, dejected after a crushing defeat at recent by-elections, regained their strength when Mr. Kim identified them as “my political successor.” The remark was made at a time when prosecutors had summoned the two former spy agency chiefs, Lim Dong-won and Shin Kuhn. Then, meeting with Park Geun-hye, chairwoman of the opposition Grand National Party, on the day detention warrants for the two were requested, Mr. Kim lauded her as “the right person to achieve harmony and tolerance” in domestic politics. A day after the warrants were issued, Mr. Kim met with Hahn Hwa-kap, leader of the Democratic Party. All eyes were on that meeting and what the two would talk about, as people expected any discourse between the two could impact on the future of both the governing Uri and the Democratic parties and the overall political landscape. Thus, it would not be exaggerating to say the central stage of Korean politics has moved to Mr. Kim’s living room.
There is no law that bans former presidents or politicians from politics after retirement from official posts. But once retired, it’s appropriate that they keep political activity to a minimum, and even if they should return to politics, it should be in a bipartisan manner or for promoting the larger national interest. What the public probably want to see is former political leaders engaged in volunteer work, assisting the poor and the isolated, and making efforts to bridge divisions between different regions.
The acts of the three Kims, however, are a far cry from that. Their actions are very political and anachronistic in that they have not shaken off either factionalism or regionalism. At this point, the most pressing question people want to ask them is what efforts they made after retirement to erase the decades-long regionalism in politics, a political mechanism that upheld their careers but which they vowed to topple.
What’s more pitiful about this situation is that it shows the incompetence of the current administration, which readily gives away center stage to its predecessors. When Kim Dae-jung made his “my political successor” comment, the governing Uri Party and the Democratic Party both claimed they were his legitimate successor. In the political arena, the fight should be about policies for the future but in the case of these two parties, it is about which party inherits Mr. Kim’s legacy. The United Liberal Democrats and the new Chungcheong-province based party are not much different in that both seem to claim they are the legitimate heirs of the Chungcheong-province kingpin, Kim Jong-pil, or JP as he is also known.
The Grand National Party is not professing succession to any of the three, but it is evidently trying very hard not to offend either DJ or JP.
What exactly is it these political parties are looking to inherit by claiming legitimacy as successor of one of the three Kim’s? Is it their ideologies or policies? I am sure there is some of that.
But more tellingly, is it not the regional support base these predecessors represent that the parties are looking to inherit as they seek advantage in the upcoming local elections and the next presidential election? The current political parties are displaying a calculating side, which stems from their incompetence, as they seek to fortify their numerical advantage by riding on the backs of their predecessors.
The three Kims are political ghosts in that they have retired from official politics. To let ghosts run the show means doom for Korean politics. Imcumbent politicians should resist the temptation to rely on an apparition. If they don’t, it will bring disaster by calling on the ghosts.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Il-young