[Viewpoint]Playing by the rules

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[Viewpoint]Playing by the rules

President Lee Myung-bak has run in four elections in his life, and he won them all. He has been strong in every campaign. In 1996, he defeated Roh Moo-hyun for the National Assembly seat in Jongno, and in 2002, he defeated Kim Min-seok and became the mayor of Seoul.

In 2007, he beat Park Geun-hye in the party primary and became the Grand National Party’s presidential candidate. In 2007, Lee Myung-bak defeated Chung Dong-young and became the president.

Among the four politicians he defeated, Roh Moo-hyun made a big comeback and was elected president. Park Geun-hye is still holding strong and is the most promising presidential contender for the next election, according to opinion polls.

Chung Dong-young is in the United States, biding his time. And as for Kim Min-seok, a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

There are good reasons for Roh Moo-hyun’s comeback and Park Geun-hye’s popularity. Roh Moo-hyun played by the rules of the game by running in Busan, and Park Geun-hye accepted the primary result and went her way. Why is Kim Min-seok struggling so much?

Kim Min-seok made a name for himself in 1985. On May 23 that year, 73 college students occupied the library of the American Cultural Center in Euljiro, Seoul and staged a protest. Marking the fifth anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, the students asked that the United States be held accountable for the Gwangju crisis. They also demanded that the U.S. stop supporting the Chun Doo Hwan military regime.

The occupation drew attention to the Gwangju massacre. Kim Min-seok was the president of the Seoul National University student council and the head of the nationwide federation of university student councils.

He was arrested for masterminding the occupation of the U.S. facility. When he stood trial, he became the center of attention with his handsome looks and eloquent speech. He did not compromise or apologize but defended the students’ position with dignity. Reporters who covered the trial whispered that he had potential as a politician. Kim Min-seok was in prison for two years and eight months.

As the reporters predicted, exactly seven years after the protest, Kim Min-seok ran for a National Assembly seat in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo District at age 28 in 1992. He was defeated by former Deputy Prime Minister Na Ung-bae by only about 200 votes. If he had won that election, he could have made a spectacular political debut as the “second Kim Young-sam.” But it did not take long until his dream came true.

Four years later, Kim Min-seok became a first-term lawmaker, and four years after that, he was re-elected. He was named by Newsweek one of the “100 leaders of the 21st century.”

And here was the crucial point. He should have chosen the strategy of taking one step at a time. He should have aimed for third and fourth terms in the Assembly until he acquired more political caliber and experience. But just like many other politicians, he chose the elevator strategy. In 2002, two years after being re-elected, the 38-year-old lawmaker tried to become the mayor of Seoul. Even if his party backed him, he should have reconsidered.

The opponent was Lee Myung-bak, a legend from Hyundai Construction. The mayor of Seoul is a position that you cannot excel at if you lack experience and policy ideas. The outcome was decided by a debate over Cheonggye Stream. Kim opposed Lee Myung-bak’s idea of restoring the stream in downtown Seoul.

“The redevelopment of the Gangbuk area and the restoration of Cheonggye Stream are two separate issues. Policy has to be realistic, and the restoration seems impossible because of the traffic problem and other issues,” he argued.

Lee Myung-bak accomplished what Mr. Kim called impossible.

Of course, you can lose an election. What’s important is how you keep your balance when you lose. Then-presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun backed Kim Min-seok’s mayoral campaign. “Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are great leaders, and the young politician closest to them is Kim Min-seok,” said Roh.

But Kim Min-seok broke off with Mr. Roh and chose Chong Mong-joon, a politician who has traveled a completely different path. Kim Min-seok became a political stray during the five years of the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

Last year, he barely made it back to the Assembly. Now he stands on the edge. An arrest warrant is a legal order issued by the state. When one issued by the court is not executed, the legal system cannot function properly. He should respond to the warrant first, then fight in court.

But Kim is about to repeat his past record of not following the proper path. Last year, he said he was writing what he called “a diary of retreat” and was going back to where he started. Standing on the edge, what choice will he make?


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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