Saenuri chairman attempts to make good following criticism
But after reacting to Roh Geon-ho’s emotional outburst with silence, ruling party Chairman Kim Moo-sung went further to praise the late president.
That move, many political observers said, signals he may have started eyeing a pathway toward a presidential bid, whether it was intended or not.
Over the past few days, Kim has refused to talk about Roh’s comments at the Saturday event, which he attended along with approximately 3,000 other guests. He is the first ruling party leader to have attended a memorial service for the late president.
Roh committed suicide in May 2009, jumping off a cliff behind his house after his family members and aides became embroiled in a bribery scandal.
At the memorial, the son of the late president abruptly lashed out at Kim, condemning him for making public parts of the conversation between the President Roh and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il during the 2007 inter-Korean summit.
Kim and a number of other Saenuri officials used the record as political ammunition during Park Geun-hye’s 2012 presidential campaign.
While refusing to discuss the incident, Kim praised the late Roh on Tuesday during his trip to Gumi, North Gyeongsang.
“I often criticized President Roh, but the time has come for us to stop talking about his shortcomings,” the Saenuri chairman said. “We should highly evaluate his achievements and facilitate national unity. One of Roh’s accomplishments was decentralization.”
“On my way to the Gimcheon-Gumi KTX Station, I saw a city that had been developed from a no man’s land,” Kim said. “This is Roh’s accomplishment.”
The Saenuri Party leader and the deceased statesman shared a long history, according to Kim.
“In my heart, I do not recognize Roh as president,” Kim said in 2003 in front of an assembly of Grand National Party lawmakers - the predecessor to current Saenuri Party - prior to the opposition’s push to impeach Roh.
During the 2012 presidential election, Kim served as the chairman of Park’s campaign and used the late president’s remarks during the inter-Korean summit to condemn the liberal bloc and its candidate Moon Jae-in.
However, after he was elected as the Saenuri Party’s chairman in July, Kim’s attitude toward Roh shifted remarkably.
On Feb. 14, Kim visited Roh’s grave and wrote his praise for the late president in the guest book. “I wish to pay my respects to the president for the common man, who devoted himself to the fight against regionalism and authoritarianism. He led a truly impressive life.”
The Saenuri chairman’s decision to attend Roh’s memorial event last week was also seen as part of efforts to reconcile with liberals as well as his past.
Loyalists to the late statesman, however, treated Kim as an enemy, dousing him with water during the event, while Roh’s son was publicly critical.
After leading the ruling party to victory in the April 29 by-elections, Kim has gone on to become the face of the conservatives. In an opinion poll conducted by Real Meter, he ranked No. 1 for three consecutive weeks among respondents asked about the nation’s next president.
Those figures are a serious turnaround from the negative evaluations he formerly received within the conservative arena.
In October, Kim promoted amending the constitution to introduce a new system of government - an idea the Blue House strongly protested, causing him to quickly retract his remarks.
“Kim learned politics from Kim Young-sam, and he knows better than anyone about the nature of power,” said former lawmaker Lee Hye-hoon. “President Park has finished just half of her term, and Kim believes a clash between the Blue House and the ruling party will help none of them now or in the next election.”
The ruling party chairman also refrained from attacking the opposition party after the legislature failed to approve a plan to overhaul the pension system for public servants, despite a deal struck between both main parties.
Kim has previously stated he has no interest in running for president, but political observers said his latest moves show he is planning a bid.
“Kim scores high for his political instincts,” said Lee Taek-soo, who heads Real Meter. “But his weakness is that he doesn’t have a group of supporters set in stone, like the loyalists around Park or Moon.”
BY LEE KA-YOUNG, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]