[Viewpoint] The karma of JP

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[Viewpoint] The karma of JP

I recently had a long conversation with Kim Jong-pil, a former prime minister and veteran politician. He is known to the public by his initials JP and his memory is ferocious. He says, “Facts are stranger than fiction,” and what he means is that while facts are understood superficially, there is often a hidden side to a story or situation. Only a man of experience and knowledge can fully understand it. JP’s memories are full of hidden secrets and amazing experiences. They are more dramatic than fiction.

JP recalled the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung during our recent meeting, shortly before the anniversary of the event. The 1973 kidnapping took place from Aug. 8 to 13, and it was a prime symbol of the turmoil and complications of Korean political history. It was masterminded by Lee Hu-rak, then-head of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency.

At the time, Lee was the second most powerful person in the Park Chung Hee administration. JP was the prime minister, but his ranking in the power elite was lower than Lee’s.

Korean politics at the time were in the middle of radical changes. The two Koreas announced a joint declaration on July 4, 1972. On Oct. 17, 1972, Park issued an emergency measure, dissolved the National Assembly and revised the Constitution. In March 1973, a group of elite military generals including Yoon Pill-yong faced a political purge. And the kidnapping of DJ took place only months later.

The architect of the July 4 inter-Korean joint declaration and the “October Restoration” was Lee. When his power reached a new peak, he faced a crisis with the 1973 political purge of Yoon. The military general was punished for planning a coup in which Lee would succeed Park. The incident signaled the fall of Lee.

That was 38 years ago, but JP spoke about it as if it was yesterday. His description was exquisite.

“Lee was no longer Park’s favorite after the [Yoon] incident,” JP said. “Lee is a clever man. He thought he should plan something. Something so big that only he could resolve it. That was the abduction of Kim Dae-jung.”

The purge of Yoon was prompted by his remarks. “President Park is too old and weak, so the successor is Lee Hu-rak,” Yoon was quoted as saying by others. Those remarks were seen as evidence of Lee and Yoon’s close ties.

The purge, in fact, was a product of a power struggle among the top officials. Confronting Lee and Yoon were Park Chong-kyu, then-head of the presidential secret service, and Kang Chang-sung, then-commander of security. The investigation faced criticism that it was politically manipulated. Neverthless, Yoon was forcibly placed on the reserve list and Lee became agitated over losing power.

In response, Lee tried to reverse the situation. At the time, DJ was campaigning against President Park’s October Restoration in Tokyo. Park was displeased to see it, and Lee kidnapped DJ and brought him to Seoul. He only informed Park about what he had done afterward.

“Lee tried to make a situation that even Park couldn’t do anything about,” JP recalled. It was not necessarily an act of blind loyalty.

After that, events transpired as Lee intended for a while. The Japanese government pressured Park, but he could not hold Lee accountable for the kidnapping because it meant admission of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement. Japan wanted things to return to where they were, and it was a situation that Park alone couldn’t handle. Lee, then, tried to regain the trust of Park.

When the wheel of history is turned, and when a crisis takes place, the prestige of the second most powerful person is strengthened. That was the survival tactic pursued by Lee. JP saw the July 4 joint declaration between the two Koreas with the same perspective. “Lee went to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Il Sung for the same purpose,” JP said. “He had created something that only he could handle.” It was a situation that even the most powerful leader couldn’t turn down. But Park and Lee had differences of opinion on how fast the inter-Korean negotiations should move at the time.

JP was also the shadow of Park. He was a leader in the May 16 coup. But his role was changed to that of “a cleaner.” He went to Japan and “cleaned up” the mess of DJ’s abduction. One month later, Lee stepped down from the power circle.

JP’s life is a drama. He has many relationships that could be deemed strange. He led the effort to make DJ the president. In 1997, he formed an alliance with DJ and rival Lee Hoi-chang was defeated. “Someone once asked me why I supported Kim Dae-jung, who had a deeply ill-fated relationship with Park,” JP said. “So I explained. During Park’s reign, DJ had suffered severely. No matter who did it, it was persecution. It was the karma of the time. So I promised him that I would untangle the karma by helping him to achieve his hope. I was promised reconciliation of the Gyeongsang and Jeolla regions and the building of the Park Chung Hee memorial. So I helped him.”

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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