Memories are shortIn the political history of Korea, presidents often find themselves under severe attack from the ruling party toward the end of their administrations. The most harshly cornered presidents were Kim Young-sam and Roh Moo-hyun. An effigy of Kim was burned. And Roh was harshly attacked by the ruling party. Most of the Uri Party members abandoned him cruelly, including people who were once close to him. It was an unprecedented mass exodus, and it all happened in 2007.
Among the first to abandon Roh was Chun Jung-bae. That was particularly shocking because he was the first to openly support Roh when he was still a marginal figure. When he left, he said, “There is no hope within the framework of the Uri Party.” In February, 23 members, led by Kim Han-gill, left the party. He said, “There’s nothing we can do no matter how hard we try if we are trapped within the Uri Party.”
It was a kind of universal truth at the time that Roh Moo-hyun had failed. Except for a handful of pro-Roh politicians, everyone criticized President Roh. Liberal professor Choi Jang-jip claimed that the Roh Moo-hyun administration failed as a democratic government. The Uri Party’s last chairman, Chung Sye-kyun, said that a lack of leadership and communication with the citizens led to the downfall of the party.
The three politicians whom Roh appointed to the most important positions shared the view. Chung Dong-young, one of the key founders of the Uri Party, said, “The public is alienated from the ruling party as the government failed to concretely improve the lives of the citizens.” Han Myung-sook, who was prime minister, said, “The government was insufficient in reaching consensus in the course of policy making, and communication with the citizens was blocked.” Lee Hae-chan, another prime minister in the Roh administration, joined the array of politicians leaving the party and said, “I am devastated and feel sorry.”
As the Uri Party was dissolving, President Roh and his close aides were shocked and betrayed. Lee Gang-cheol, a special aide on political affairs, criticized those who left the party and said they wanted to take advantage of the presidential election. Health Minister Rhyu Si-min said, “We were in power for 10 years, and that’s enough. It doesn’t matter if we become the opposition. The nation will not be ruined even if Park Geun-hye or Lee Myung-bak becomes president.”
In June of that year, President Roh spoke at Wonkwang University, North Jeolla.
“They are leaving the party because it is ruined by Roh Moo-hyun,” he said. “However, those who left the party are even less popular than I am. They are like the people who pack up and quit a company before a bankruptcy because the funding is running low. It seems that people who have not learned proper politics are in the National Assembly.”
The speech suggested that the president was unstable and agitated at the time. And it is likely that the psychological insecurity continued to the end of the term. In such uneasiness, President Roh must have felt desperate to save himself when he visited Pyongyang in October 2007. It may have been this psychological anxiety that led him to make some slack comment on the Northern Limit Line to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The minutes of the summit meeting suggest his psychological state.
Five years have passed. Lee Hae-chan is chairman of the Democratic United Party and Kim Han-gill is the second-most powerful member of the Supreme Council of the party. Chung Dong-young is the chairman of the Inter-Korean Economic Integration Committee in presidential candidate Moon Jae-in’s camp. The people who “packed up and quit the company before bankruptcy” are trying to raise investments again by putting up the vice president (Moon Jae-in) of the bankrupted company. And they are distributing new prospectuses, claiming they can do better this time.
The presidential election in Korea often turns into a fight against oblivion. In 1987, the voters were blinded by the “average citizen Roh Tae-woo” and the division of the two Kims, and forgot about the Dec. 12 coup led by army generals Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo and the tragic suppression of the Gwangju democratization movement. So, the Democratic Justice Party could remain in power for another five years. If the voters forget about 2007 this December, Moon Jae-in and the Democratic United Party are likely to seize power again.
Can Moon Jae-in erase the memories of bankruptcy and get new investments? What advice is Roh Moo-hyun giving from the grave to the vice president who shares responsibility for the bankruptcy? Will Moon Jae-in be able to offer a new management strategy to the voters?
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin