Revolutionary party brought in brightest minds

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Revolutionary party brought in brightest minds

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Park Chung Hee, then chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, right, sits next to Jung Gu-yeong on Aug. 30 1963, at the Democratic Republican Party’s headquarters in Seoul. Park accepted the party’s presidential nomination the next day and was appointed party chairman. [JoongAng Photo]

I can’t talk about the launch of the Democratic Republican Party (DRP) without talking about Jung Gu-yeong, whom to this day I consider Korea’s last seonbi - a term derived from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that translates as an elite scholar.

He was a man of high ethical standards and principles. We would be hard pressed to see a man of such integrity in Korean politics again.

I met Jung for the first time right after the May 16 revolution [coup] in 1961, when he was serving as the president of the prestigious Korean Bar Association. I invited him to a meeting, along with other prominent lawyers at the time.

He was renowned for his strong legal standards - to the point where he even publicly demanded former President Syngman Rhee resign at the height of the April 19 student-led revolution in the face of government threats to silence him.

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Kim Jong-pil, ninth from left, and Jung Gu-yeong, to Kim’s left, in a photo with other founding members of the Democratic Republican Party (RDP) during their first general meeting on Jan. 18, 1963, at the Chosun Hotel in Seoul. [JoongAng Photo]

During my meeting with him, I tried to explain what prompted us to stage a revolution to form a military government.

After the Supreme Council for National Construction lifted the ban on political parties on Jan. 1, 1963, and allowed them to resume their activities, my fellow founding party members and I agreed to put Jung in an envisioned leadership position.

We all agreed that we needed his foresight and experience as a veteran lawyer and an elite intellectual. Even though we knew he might turn us down - he had already refused to join hands with former President Yun Po-sun despite his request - we were unwavering in our determination to have Jung onboard.

On Jan. 12, 1963, he came to visit the party’s preparatory office in central Seoul. Sitting in front of him, I again explained to him why we needed him as a party leader. Though he was 30 years my senior, at 67, we shared a similar vision for the country.

Jung seemed surprised that the revolutionary force had a man like me.

“It was good that you carried out a revolution,” he told me during our meeting. “But how you manage it all the way to the end is just as important as its starting point. If you screw up, you will be branded as a traitor.”

Then he said he would join in our cause.

Delighted, I told him, “You are the last remaining seonbi of our era,” to which he smiled brightly.

I recall Jung as a man of great integrity who sought out national interests over his personal gain. Because I was 30 years younger, he understood me as if I were his nephew and looked after me. Though I will go into this later, he was vehemently opposed to Park Chung Hee’s attempt to revise the Constitution to allow him to run for office for a third term. It was his grave that I visited after I returned to Korea in 1986 after years of self-exile in the United States during the Chung Doo Hwan government.

The RDP we launched encompassed all the features that had not been seen before in the Korean political landscape. One of the most striking features was its separation of functions and responsibilities among lawmakers and the party management office.

We also introduced the parliamentary proportional election system. Though we explained that we put the proportional system in place in order to bring talented minds to the National Assembly, in fact it was designed to bring in members in the revolutionary force who were born in North Korea and thus lacked the regional background to run for office.

On Dec. 23, 1962, we held a year-end party at the Walkerhill Hotel in Seoul. There, I gave a speech outlining the formation of the new party that would represent the revolutionary force.

After my speech, some of the Supreme Council members harshly criticized me for having hatched such a plan without consulting them first. Council members from North Korea, in particular, thought I was launching the party to strip them of their positions and influence. I tried to explain to them that was why the envisioned party would have a proportional system, but I couldn’t quell their outrage.

Many of those who openly opposed me did not like the idea that I - just a colonel in the Army - was at the center to guide them, many who were former generals.

To ease the situation, I had five of the most vocal opponents appointed as founding members of the RDP.

On Jan. 18, 1963, we had our first meeting of founding members at the Chosun Hotel, along with 78 party members, including the five who initially scolded me. Standing at the podium, I read my address as head of the launch committee.

“The people of this land are calling for a new set of rules and procedures, based on the national spirit and philosophies beneficial for the common good. … Our party is not and will not be one that resembles the rules of the past, but the one that will actually get things done. With our strong determination and action, we will create a nation that will take care of its people in a sound welfare system.”

Though there was a strong push for the formation of a new party, the opposition from the Supreme Council members showed no sign of abating. Many rejected my plan, worried that they would not be elected to parliament running as RDP candidates. But contrary to their concerns, many of those who opposed me won seats through the proportional system.

COMPLIED BY CHUN YOUNG-GI AND KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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