[Viewpoint] In search for the next KimIn 1987 I met former President Kim Dae-jung in person when he was under house arrest in Donggyo-dong after having returned from the United States. Kim came home in an unstable atmosphere after Philippine senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated. Kim was abducted in Tokyo and had been brought to the brink of death.
When I saw him, he was staying home, watering flowers in his garden and feeding birds. After he was released from house arrest, a small calendar was found behind his chair in the living room on which dates were crossed out one after another.
He was always in the public eye.
In 1987, when he was running for the presidency, he appeared at Hanshin University. Supporters filled the grounds of the university, folded their umbrellas despite heavy showers and shouted, “Kim Dae-jung!” Their tears mixed with the rain.
In Jeonju, the crowd was so huge that one could not see the end of it over a hill toward Jeonju Station. In Muan, torches that supporters held lit up the pitch-black night. In 2000, the public gathered in Pyongyang and in Oslo, Norway, holding candles to express their support for him.
He helped assuage the hurt people felt because they were discriminated against because of their hometowns, or their low incomes or because our country was separated.
On June 10, 1987, relying on a cane, Kim walked from Yonsei University, through the Seodaemun overpass to Seoul City Hall.
The June demonstrations brought on direct presidential elections. It was an achievement reached through the sacrifice and participation of countless citizens, though no one can doubt that Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam played central roles.
On Oct. 25, 1987, however, the two Kims wore rigid expressions on their faces and did not look at each other as they sat on the ground of Korea University. The scene is still remembered as a regrettable moment. Later, Kim Dae-jung lamented that he contributed to such an occasion. At that time, every morning for a month he sat by the kitchen table in his house, working on his reasons for creating a new party. The aftershocks from the separation of the opposition circles have continued for more than two decades. They last even to this day. Democratization forces have been divided and Korea’s political parties are still based on their regions.
With Kim’s death, the Kims era, which lasted for four decades, is over. Even though they were criticized for encouraging regionalism and acting as masters in political communities, they achieved the central task of their time - making institutional democracy take root.
Their leadership did not come easy. Before them, politics was done behind closed doors. When they presented themselves as new leaders, veteran politicians mocked them for being childish. However, they turned the community upside down with their fresh visions. Their leadership did not come through money and organizations, either. In 1970, when Kim Dae-jung became a presidential candidate, he had only one lawmaker, Kim Sang-hyun, beside him.
Kim used to say that a leader must take only half a step ahead of the public. That means, a leader must be close to the public while he presents a vision for them.
He also said he wanted to be remembered as the IT president, rather than the reunification president. This shows that he took vision seriously.
In the 1987 presidential election, he once held a rally in front of the Gimhae market. He said, “About 85 percent of the people say they cannot find any political party that represents their interests.” Because of this, he maintained that there was a need to create his new party.
He was a man of perseverance.
He was known as an eloquent speaker. Before delivering a speech, he always practiced it tens of times in his den in the basement of his house.
He was not afraid of change. He took interest in fresh blood more than any other political leader. He did not hesitate to hold hands with anyone as long as the other was not evil.
He hugged Kim Jong-il, and former President Chun Doo Hwan recalled that the time when Kim Dae-jung was in power was the happiest period.
It is said that competition over leadership has begun in the opposition circle. The debate is about who is the so-called legitimate successor of Kim.
Park Jie-won, senior member of the Democratic Party, who served as the presidential secretary to Kim, said that the late former president left a message that the Democratic Party must take a leading role in unifying democratic, progressive and reform forces. After the funeral service, changes will be inevitable in the opposition circle.
However, the current situation in the opposition circle is too weak to expect those changes to be significant. As two former presidents have passed away within a few months, they have left an emptiness that is as large as it is hollow.
Instead of inheriting their creative leadership, those who are left behind seem to be fighting over gains from regionalism that the late leaders worked so hard to break. Regionalism must have died together with the era of the Kims.
Kim believed that the parliamentary process was of the utmost importance. Opposed to having a meeting between Korea and Japan, he resigned from his seat at the National Assembly but he maintained that we must protect the legislative branch.
He was unlike current opposition leaders who ask for the impossible and are confused between displaying their feelings and delivering public statements. They do not have a vision and they cannot draw empathy from the people.
Now is a time to create new leadership.
A person who learns from the Kims and can surpass them must step forward.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin-kook