[Viewpoint]Korean political dramaThere is a memorable photograph of the late President Park Chung Hee taken in 1978, one year before he was assassinated by his security chief. In the photo, Park awards medals to generals who had served as commanding officers in his security corps. The person partly hidden by Park’s face is then-General Chun Doo Hwan, the outgoing assistant deputy operations chief of the Presidential Security Service. Shaking hands with the president is then-General Roh Tae-woo, who succeeded Chun. Next to him stands Cha Ji-chul, head of the Presidential Security Service. Cha and the generals with him were clad in the uniform of the Presidential Security Service, which he had modeled on the uniform of Hitler’s SS guards.
There is probably no other photograph like this in the world, with the president of a country gathered in the same place with his future successors.
President Park and his generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, did not have any inkling about their fates at that moment. In past ages of despotic monarchies, it would have been natural for kings to happen to be in the same place with their would-be successors. The order of succession to the throne was pre-determined, usually by birth.
However, in a democratic country nobody knows the future direction of power. The late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George Bush, who would succeed him, had of course been in the same places together in the 1980s, but Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas had never aligned with them. In that sense, the coincidence of the three Korean leaders, Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, being at the same place at the same time was nearly unimaginable. But such a dramatic scene was recorded in Korea in 1978.
In March 1996, 18 years after the historic photo was taken, a joint debate for candidates running in the 15th legislative elections for the Jongno District seat was held at the playground of Daeshin High School, near Dongnimmun, or the Independence Gate, in central Seoul.
Kim Dae-jung had bolted from the Democratic Party and established a new party, the National Congress for New Politics, but candidate Roh Moo-hyun remained in the Democratic Party under the leadership of Lee Ki-taek.
Roh had charged then, “The career of candidate Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party is a myth tainted by corruption and extortion.” He also attacked candidate Lee Jong-chan of Kim’s National Congress for New Politics, saying, “A person who held various government posts under the military regime cannot be turned into a member of the opposition by simply stepping into the opposition party one day, suddenly.” Candidate Lee Myung-bak had retorted: “An economic specialist who can revive the economy should become a National Assemblyman, not a politician who is good at nothing but political rhetoric.”
Candidate Lee Jong-chan attacked the Kim Young-sam administration with an expose: “According to sources close to [a] police investigation, corruption involving five close aides of former President Kim Young-sam was revealed in the process of tracing checks in the possession of the presidential secretary, Chang Hak-ro.” The election results were around 40,000 votes for Lee Myung-bak, some 33,000 for Lee Jong-chan and about 17,000 for Roh Moo-hyun.
The election was a fateful encounter between Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun. It was Lee Myung-bak’s first candidacy in a legislative election, as it was for Roh Moo-hyun to run for a legislative seat in the Seoul area. As fate would have it, they would be competing against each other in that election.
At the time they could not have imagined, as Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo never did, that one would hand over the presidency to the other.
Twelve years later, on Feb. 25, 2008 Roh handed over the presidency to Lee.
In Korean politics, there are dramatic elements that are not usually seen in the history of other parts of the world. When Park Chung Hee was assassinated by his own security chief after staying in power for 18 years, two of Park’s former bodyguards took power in succession. After that, two of Park’s biggest political foes took over power consecutively.
Former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were far from being poor in their childhood. When the era of the two Kims was over, two people who rose from extreme poverty in their childhood became the masters of the Blue House, succeeding each other.
In just 15 years, from 1988 to 2003, Koreans have gone through four great changes ― the transfer of power from military regimes to a civilian government, from the governing party to the opposition, between political forces based in the Youngnam region and the Honam region and between the older generation and the younger generation.
What about North Korea? The longest, darkest, despotic and most closed society with no precedent of its kind in world history is surviving in the North.
Not even Steven Spielberg, the director of the film “E.T.”, can find a story as dramatic as the political drama continuing to unfold in the Korean Peninsula. It seems that the gods have given the Korean people a talent for staging political dramas, instead of natural resources or a large land mass.
I wonder what kind of drama will unfold in the coming five years under the Lee Myung-bak administration. Will it be a tragedy or a farce?
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY Kim Jin