[Viewpoint] Life after Kim Dae-jung

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[Viewpoint] Life after Kim Dae-jung

The late former President Kim Dae-jung was one of the two most important politicians in Korea’s modern history. The other was former President Park Chung Hee, who died in 1979.

You could say that what Kim did for democratization is what Park did for industrialization.

Kim competed against Park in the 1971 presidential election, led the democratization movement in the 1970s and the 1980s and was finally elected the president in 1997, starting his own era. Kim’s life was like a flower that endures a harsh winter but blooms in the early summer, giving a sliver of hope to people deep in despair.

The achievements of the Kim administration were distinctive. Economically, it overcame an economic crisis in the late 1990s and laid a cornerstone for lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula through a summit meeting with the North. It established the foundations for a welfare state by implementing a law to guarantee minimum standards of living. It created the ministry for women and a national council for human rights, preparing the basis for the democratization of society. Any administration’s achievements get evaluated after a certain period has passed. As for the Kim administration, it seems to have been faithful to its goal, “developing democracy and a market economy at the same time” and inspiring new energy after the economic crisis.

It is truly regrettable that we lost former President Roh Moo-hyun and former President Kim in the same year, one in the spring and the other in the summer. Progressive and reform forces must feel tremendous grief, considering the two former presidents’ weight in political circles.

Some have criticized their terms in office as a lost decade. However, I believe the Kim and the Roh administrations tried to combine economic growth and democracy, opening up doors and social welfare inside the country in a productive way during the 10 years they were in power. Kim meant this, as well, when he used the expression the “restored decade.”

Essentiality, the death of Kim gives us a twofold task. Progressive and reform forces must look into the achievements and flaws of the Kim and Roh model of government. Based on the investigation, they must then present a new progressive vision for the country. While the goal of the Kim and Roh model was to implement politics based on values aimed at realizing democracy, their model considered it important to pursue realistic politics, such as overcoming the economic crisis and creating a society that prized social welfare.

What’s clear now more than ever is that there is no way to take a shortcut in history. Progressive and reform forces must thus respond to the ever-changing global era. They must advance from the former presidents’ goals, namely “developing democracy and market economy at the same time” and “creating a developed and balanced society where everybody is better off,” and present real policies that connect with ordinary people.

Progressive and reform forces are left with the task of finding out how we can move beyond the Kim and Roh model in a productive way. In other words, they need to inherit the two former presidents’ goals while remaining independent from them at the same time.

Kim’s death means the end of the first stage of modernity in our society. Our society has passed the points where Park Chung Hee’s industrialization and Kim’s democratization were key markers in our history.

In the first stage of modernity, industrialization and democratization are like two sides of the same coin. Industrialization requires democratization and mature social integrity, and advanced democracy, in return, requires industrialization. The past 60 years have proved that democratization and industrialization are not at odds; they complement each other.

One feels deeply sad to see the two former presidents pass away, but not only because we have lost great leadership. Even though we have gone through the era of industrialization and democratization, economic growth and democracy are still looking for the right direction to take.

We don’t necessarily know the best path. Our generation has been given a grave task: to realize the second stage of modernity, by combining new levels of industrialization and democracy to make our country a truly advanced one.

At least during the mourning period, we should think deeply about where our society stands now and where it should be heading.

I sincerely wish that former President Kim rests in peace.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Tom Coyner
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