[Viewpoint] Ahn follows in Chung Ju-yung’s path

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[Viewpoint] Ahn follows in Chung Ju-yung’s path

The recent flurry over Ahn Cheol-soo reminded me of a similar incident involving the late Hyundai Group founder, Chung Ju-yung. Chung made a bid for the presidency exactly 20 years ago. It was the first announcement of presidential aspirations by a nonpolitician in the history of modern Korean politics. Chung is a mirror that reflects Ahn’s positioning in our political history.

The timing was exquisite. It was a transition period of political forces. After 30 years of military rule dating from the 1961 coup d’etat of Park Chung Hee, power was being handed over to civilian leaders.

But the politicians’ capabilities were weak. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were the political leaders of the fight for democratization, but they were sometimes criticized as symbols of “old politics.” Some argued that the two Kims should retire from politics. Distrust peaked in the political arena due to repeated realignments of politicians, secret pacts and disclosures of shady practices.

Amid that situation, the political debut of the country’s top businessman was a great shock. The economic powerhouse threw down a challenge to politicians and an unstable democracy. In late 1991, the political headlines were dominated by Chung Ju-yung.

“Korean politics is worse than the quality of the Pony,” Chung said, comparing the situation to one of his company’s first car models. Hyundai had recently rolled out its new Grandeur.

“I have paid close attention, but have not yet found a capable leader to be trusted with the country’s future,” Chung also said. “It is very appropriate for a business leader to utilize his expertise to contribute to political advancement.”

In early 1992, Chung founded the United People’s Party to “rescue the nation’s economy amid a lack of political leadership.” He said that stopping the ruling Democratic Liberal Party from winning another presidential election would be the way to save the country.

Up to this point, Ahn seems to be a reincarnation of Chung. Of course, Ahn is very different from Chung. While Chung had economic power during the analog era, Ahn has IT power during the digital era. While Chung wore the armor of the Hyundai Group, Ahn uses the weapon of social network services. The two have very different personalities, but their political actions have been very similar.

As a successful businessman, Ahn lamented the “incapable politicians” and deplored the distrust of politics by the people. He mentioned retaliation against the ruling party as the current of history. “For a swimmer, there is no difference between the depth of a two-meter pool and the Pacific Ocean,” Ahn said to emphasize his abilities.

Chung’s political course after founding the United People’s Party is the path that Ahn has not taken. After establishing his political party, Chung quickly won a surprise victory. In the general election a month after the party’s launch, 31 lawmakers won National Assembly seats on the UPP ticket.

It was an amazing success for a party that simply gathered together politicians who had failed to earn nominations from other established political parties.

Then, the presidential race came. The highlight of Chung’s campaign was his “one million stumping event” that took place a week before the election. Despite heavy snow, Yeouido Plaza was filled with a crowd. During his speech, Chung’s voice trembled as he was carried away by emotion and a strong conviction about his victory. At the time, the social research institutes of Hyundai reported to him that he was likely to be the victor.

Of course, that was a delusion. Most of the crowd was people mobilized by the Hyundai Group and its affiliates. Opinion polls were inaccurate and undecided voters were divided between the two Kims. Chung won 16.3 percent of the vote in the election, lower than the 17.4 percent his party won in the legislative elections. His presidential ambition, which cost hundreds of billions of won, utterly failed.

After that, Chung faced hardships. After investigations into election law violations and charges of embezzlement, the prosecutors were about to summon him. At Gimpo Airport, he was barred from leaving the country while attempting to leave quietly for Japan.

After Chung declared his retirement from politics, the lawmakers from his party were absorbed into the ruling party. And after two years of court battles, he was convicted. He died after the two Kims, whom he had criticized severely, were elected presidents consecutively.

Chung’s adventure incurred enormous losses, not only for himself and the company, but for society. After his defeat in the presidential race, Chung lived in seclusion. When he once made a public appearance, many people felt devastated to see his empty eyes.

The same sense of incompetent, corrupt politics in the country, which Chung wanted to change, can still be felt by some today. That is why successors of Chung’s spirit continue to emerge. Ahn is the most prominent challenger among them.

Chung appeared to be a powerful alternative in the transition period about 20 years ago, and Ahn is following suit because he is capitalizing on the information revolution. But it is not easy to see the creation of a new political force that can go beyond party politics. In that sense, President Lee Myung-bak is a successful successor to Chung. After turning down Chung’s request to join his United People’s Party, Lee joined the ruling party and endured 15 years of tempering in the political trenches.

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

By Oh Byung-sang
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