Start of new era brings high hopes for democracy

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Start of new era brings high hopes for democracy

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Kim Jong-pil, second from right, stands with Kim Young-sam, third from right, and Kim Dae-jung, third from left, at an event honoring Kim Seong-su, the founder of the Dong-A Ilbo, on Feb. 25, 1980. [KIM JONG-PIL]

This is the latest in a series of articles on the life and times of Kim Jong-pil, a two-time prime minister, based on extensive interviews with the 89-year-old.

As 1980 began, Korea appeared to be recovering some sense of stability despite the death of President Park Chung Hee. Hope also abounded in the political circle, and some said the dawn of democracy had finally arrived.

Still, others had reservations about what was to come, calling the situation “foggy.”

My message for the New Year, represented in calligraphy, called for the flow of history to be judged in time. In the political circle, quiet activity was already evident among certain groups and lawmakers.

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Kim Jong-pil, second from right, gives a toast with his wife Park Young-ok and party officials on Jan. 1, 1980 in celebration of the New Year at the headquarters of the Democratic Republican Party (DRP). [KIM JONG-PIL]

Opposition party leader Kim Young-sam acted as though he were a victor, to be credited with the downfall of the Park government. Kim Dae-jung was also released from house arrest and began to flex his political muscle. And President Choi Kyu-hah appeared to be indulging his political ambitions, contrary to his earlier promise that he would oversee the transitional period before the new Constitution was drafted to elect a new government.

Notably, Chun Doo Hwan’s faction, which seized the complete control through a Dec. 12 military coup, fiercely began its pursuit of power.

At the same time, I was busy trying to rebuild the Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which was on the verge of falling apart following Park Chung Hee’s assassination.

With the Choi Kyu-hah government now in place, the DRP lost its status as ruling party.

Many claimed it was the remnants of the dictatorship and dismissed the party’s accomplishments achieved under Park’s rule. As the party chairman, I was tasked with quickly rebuilding the party, while keeping up morale.

In my New Year’s address to the DRP members, I said that the party must chart a new path for a new era.

On Feb. 25, 1980, Dong-A Ilbo Chairman Kim Sang-man invited opposition leaders Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-Jung and me to an event honoring Kim Seong-su, the newspaper’s founder. The meeting with the three Kims was also attended by U.S. Ambassador to Korea William Gleysteen and the Japanese and Canadian ambassadors, garnering significant attention from the media.

At the time, the expectation was that a new era of democracy was coming.

In a toast, I said we were here to pledge to build a new history based on real democratic values. U.S. Ambassador Gleystee later described the meeting as a gathering of “three lions.”

The two Kims repeatedly said that spring had arrived in Seoul and that democratic order should replace the status quo. To me, their optimism simply reflected the premise that they would soon be elected president. I, on the other hand, gave them a cautious note. “If you take off your coat too early, thinking that spring has come when in fact it has not, you will easily catch a cold. And that could lead to pneumonia and kill you.”

I made that remark at the time without knowing Chun Doo Hwan and his supporters were secretly preparing to take over the government. But I knew the group had ill intentions - and my prediction turned out to be right.

I had to prepare for the future of the DRP and my political career. I had a strong resolution that I would pursue my way in politics no matter who was elected president. On Feb. 27, I delivered an address that cast light on my political vision. I put in a lot of effort and time in drafting the speech and was assisted by experts in various fields.

In the address, I did not deny the achievements of the past. But I did look back and express regret over what could have been better and more democratic.

“The Yushin system [under Park Chung Hee] played an essential role in overcoming the challenges Korea faced both internally and externally. But in doing so, democratic principles and values had to be sacrificed for the sake of pursuing efficiency and achieving those objectives.

“But it was regrettable that politics became inefficient and social irregularities accumulated over the years,” I said.

Then I proposed my vision for the 1980s. The top priority was to restore democracy.

Until the 1970s, democracy had to be sacrificed for economic prosperity. Now the time had come for the country to take it back. “We must bravely march forward to achieve democracy. To achieve democracy that meets our economic growth can only lay down the groundwork for national reconciliation, which would in turn lead to further economic growth.

I also emphasized on the need to embrace a welfare-oriented society and participation on the global stage.

“We must have a [diplomatic strategy] that is creative and more active to take the lead in remapping regional power and contributing to stability globally.

The goals I laid out that day could have been achieved 10 years earlier had Chun Doo Hwan not overthrown the government.

During a Q&A session with journalists, I was asked whether I would make compromises again like I did when I supported President Park’s push for the Yushin Constitution.

“My philosophy back then was to follow and support President Park even if his philosophy differed from mine. Now he has passed away. In his absence, I will from now on do my politics based on my own political beliefs. As DRP chairman, I will strive to achieve my brand of politics.”

Kim Young-hie, the deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo at the time, bluntly asked me if there could be some external factors that would impact the political circle - an apparent reference to Chun Doo Hwan.

I answered carefully.

“I think worries about these kinds of external factors are largely unfounded. I believe that if politicians do their jobs, such rumors will not manifest.”

I said those words without much conviction, and I hoped that what I said would turn out to be true.

But it wasn’t long before I was proven wrong.

Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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