[Viewpoint] Bailing out a reputation

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[Viewpoint] Bailing out a reputation

Strong candidates for “Person of the Year” could well be former presidents.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun became a focal point for the nation after he took his own life and now we are watching out for news of former President Kim Dae-jung as he clings to life during his serious brush with pneumonia.

Then we’ve seen former President Kim Young-sam visit Kim Dae-jung’s bedside and declare that the two former rivals have reconciled their past conflicts. And former President Chun Doo Hwan, who was the commander of the faction that drove Kim Dae-jung into a corner and sentenced him to death in 1980, flattered Kim Dae-jung after visiting him in hospital by saying, “Former presidents were happiest when President Kim Dae-jung was in office.”

If former President Roh Tae-woo shows up, all four ex-presidents would have made the trip to honor Kim Dae-jung, but such an appearance is unlikely, as the ailing Roh could not even make it to Roh Moo-hyun’s funeral because he has trouble walking these days.

The activities of these retired leaders bring to mind the recent movie “The Bucket List,” which was about two old men doing things they always wanted to do before it got too late.

A “bucket list” is filled with wishes one wants to fulfill before kicking the bucket, and it seems as if Korea’s former presidents have prepared their own. Fortunately, these lists seem to focus on reconciliation and comfort rather than confrontation or settling ancient scores.

Of course, we can never predict what a former president might include on his bucket list. Korean politics are very dramatic, so there’s every chance something unexpected might crop up.

One possible item on the list might one day have Chun and Roh Tae-woo visiting the National Cemetery for the May 18 Democratic Uprising in Gwangju. In the cemetery are 608 people killed during the uprising, which took place from May 18 to 27, 1980, or who were injured at that time and died later.

The only two former presidents who have not paid homage to the cemetery are the leaders of the fifth republic, Chun and Roh Tae-woo.

The reason it is important for them to pay homage to the cemetery is Korea has not yet recovered from the aftermath of the bloodshed and conflicts in the pivotal year of 1980.

They say the reason why Chun Doo Hwan has not yet visited the cemetery is his interpretation of the Gwangju incident is different from the one generally accepted by the rest of the country.

A source close to the former president explained, “Former President Chun has a different opinion on how the bloodshed took place in Gwangju. General Chun was the commander of the Defense Security Command when the Gwangju movement broke, so he was not related to the mobilization of the military forces that suppressed and opened fire at demonstrators.”

However, this is microscopic logic that overlooks the historical responsibility of Chun for the 1980 incident.

The year 1980 is still a source of conflict for former presidents. If the new military faction led by Chun had not seized power, Kim Dae-jung would not have been arrested and the uprising in Gwangju would not have taken place.

If there had been no bloodshed in Gwangju, Kim Young-sam would not have taken the coup d’etat staged by Chun in 1979 to trial.

The reason why the leaders of the coup d’etat were prosecuted later, despite the fact that the ringleaders were never punished, was probably because of what happened in Gwangju.

If there had been no trial on the legitimacy of the coup d’etat, Chun and Roh Tae-woo would not have been sentenced to death in the 1990s, and the conflict between Chun and Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam would not have materialized.

In addition, if the new military faction had not held power, the competition between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung would not have been so intense, which would have dramatically altered the course of Korean politics during the last 15 years.

Likewise, 1980 was a key axis of conflict in contemporary Korean history, and Chun was right in the middle of all the action.

Seeing Kim Dae-jung lying in his hospital room, I felt transported back to 1980 after 29 years of political turmoil. The year 1980, still covered with wounds, whispers, “No one can move forward without treating me first.”

Did Chun catch that?

Whether or not he was the chief of the Defense Security Command or the Special Warfare Command when the Gwangju incident took place, he is responsible for the historical incidents that broke out in 1980. He was the ringleader and the commander-in-chief of the faction that damaged the other side.

Will the hearts of the victims be reconciled only if the person responsible visits the cemetery?

Chun came into power through bloodshed, but the June 29 Declaration by his chosen successor, Roh Tae-woo, in 1987 prevented the outbreak of more violence. The declaration accepted the people’s wishes for democratization and a constitutional amendment for direct election of the president. It was surrender to the people, but it was still a significant contribution to the development of history.

The people are waiting for his decision once again. Will Chun’s bucket list include reconciling himself with his role in the Gwangju uprising?

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

by Kim Jin
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