Kim Dae-jung’s lessons for ParkAmidst the fears of the Asian foreign exchange crisis, two solemn-faced men exchanged greetings in an office on the 15th floor of the Korea Investment Management Company in Yeouido on a late January evening in 1998. They were Kim Yong-whan and Chung Duck-koo. At the time, Kim was the head of the emergency economic measures committee created through consultations between president-elect Kim Dae-jung and President Kim Young-sam. Chung was the assistant minister of finance and economy in the Kim Young-sam administration.
During the meeting, Kim was serving in the capacity of chief negotiator of the foreign debt negotiation, while Chung was attending the meeting as head of the working-level foreign debt negotiation. As the interview began, Kim asked Chung sharp questions about key economic indicators and his strategy for negotiation, with Chung replying meticulously. After 30 minutes, Lee Hun-jai, chief of the emergency committee, entered the room after waiting in an adjacent room.
“We should let him do the job,” Kim said. It was the moment when Chung passed the interview.
Why did Kim want to verify Chung - already a renowned elite official - once again? I asked Kim last weekend about his reason.
“If he wasn’t satisfactory, I was ready to head the working-level talks as well,” Kim answered.
Chung was evaluated as an official with a strong sense of responsibility and patriotism. So, Kim split up the roles by handing over the working-level negotiations entirely to Chung while he would just deliver the president-elect’s position on the situation to the U.S. government. Kim was a thorough man.
As finance minister in the Park Chung Hee administration, he resolved the foreign exchange crisis of the country after the oil shock in 1974. His head and heart were filled with pride and responsibility.
After surviving the interview, Chung flew to New York a few days later, and successfully led the working-level negotiation to convert short-term foreign debts to long-term loans on Jan. 18, 1998, saving the country from sovereign default.
After winning the presidential election during the 1997 crisis, Kim Dae-jung had no time to pay attention to his associates in his early days in office. He trusted Kim Yong-whan, the chief strategist of Kim Jong-pil, head of the United Liberal Democrats, with whom he had forged an alliance during the election. President Kim relied on Kim Yong-whan to select his economic team, and Kim Yong-whan recruited talent unselfishly.
But Kim Yong-whan rejected the president’s offer to give him a post in the cabinet. President Kim then recruited Lee Hun-jai, who had worked for his rival Lee Hoi-chang’s presidential campaign, to head the emergency economic measures committee and later appointed him as the first head of the Financial Supervisory Service and gave him full authority on the massive corporate restructuring.
“President Kim hired me as an expert, not a comrade,” Lee Hun-jai recalled. Although they all had different lives and political careers, they were united as one for the nation’s interests.
Today, Koreans rarely believe that the top officials in the new Park Geun-hye administration were selected for their abilities. Some even said it would be better to appoint a female diver as the minister of oceans and fisheries than Yoon Jin-sook, who is under heavy attack for her lack of qualifications.
If we are living in a good time, it could be no big deal. But we are in the middle of a crisis. The financial crisis 15 years ago was short-lived, as the emergency could be resolved by stockpiling dollars in the reserve.
Today, however, we are facing a long-term, inscrutable crisis. North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and threats to completely close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex grow day by day. The strong wave of the low yen is threatening the export-driven Korean economy.
A falling growth rate and a rapidly aging society have cast a gloomy shadow over the society.
And yet, we cannot find the president’s strong resolve to solve the crisis through her wise appointments for top government positions. Of course, Park has the ability to overcome the shortcomings in the early days of the administration, because no doubt she has the determination to sacrifice herself for the country and the people. But the time has come to seriously evaluate the situation.
First, Park needs to remember the appointments former President Kim Dae-jung made after he won victory. Although Kim Yong-whan was groomed by Park Chung Hee, who oppressed Kim Dae-jung throughout his political career, President Kim trusted Kim Yong-whan.
Kim Yong-whan served as the finance minister in the Park Chung Hee administration for four years and three months and resolved the foreign exchange crisis after the 1974 oil shock. And Kim Dae-jung used Kim Yong-whan’s experience, abilities and patriotism.
In the end, Kim Dae-jung was able to overcome the foreign exchange crisis in 1997 with the help of Park Chung Hee. Though Kim Dae-jung is now a page in history, he is probably trying to tell President Park that he wants to repay the help he got from her father.
Bill Clinton, after his inauguration as the U.S. president in 1992, struggled with botched appointments at the beginning of his term. He appointed one of his best friends as the White House chief of staff, but his approval rating plummeted. Clinton, then, recruited David Gergen, a Republican, as his political advisor to improve his communication with the public.
Gergen, who had supported three Republican presidents, made the best use of his experiences and made a remarkable contribution to pull up Clinton’s approval rating. In his book, “Eyewitness to Power,” Gergen advised that a president must get a full grip of state affairs at the beginning of the term and recruit qualified aides for success.
If President Park sees the current situation as a crisis, she must recruit talented officials from all political backgrounds rather than making “lonely decisions.” She must remember the art of appointment used by Kim Dae-jung at the beginning of his presidency.
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung