President Kim’s legacies
Former President Kim Young-sam, an iconic Korean political figure who paved the way for the first civilian government after decades of rule by military generals, passed away on Sunday at 87. As his self-titled sobriquet “Geo-san” - meaning huge mountain in Korean - suggests, he was truly a towering figure in Korean modern political history. He was at the center of the ideological war, the democratic struggle against dictatorship and military regimes, and the country’s dramatic transition to a democracy. He entered politics in 1954 at the age of 26, becoming the youngest politician in Korea. Except for the 11th and 12th elections due to political sanctions against him, he was elected to a legislative seat nine times. His two record titles as the youngest-ever to be elected and most-elected politician in Korea are yet to be broken.
Kim’s exit following the death of former President Kim Dae-jung, with whom he led the pro-democracy movement against military regimes, formally closes the chapter in the country’s modern political history laden with violent and tumultuous events. The two Kims, who allowed a peaceful power transfer between rivaling conservative and liberal factions by leading the country back-to-back, leave many lessons for their political successors.
The deceased fought most of his life for democracy. Although he joined politics as a ruling party member, he became a dissident after being disillusioned by the dictatorial rule of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee. He was arrested and lost his parliamentary seat in 1979 for protesting against constitutional reforms made by former President Park Chung Hee to extend his rule. He went on a hunger strike and was placed under house arrest for his anti-government activities. His action united dissidents and eventually developed into a nationwide democracy movement that led to the 1987 constitutional reform guaranteeing single five-year presidential terms through direct elections.
As president, he embarked straight onto the work of cleaning the remnants and opaque ways of the military regime by disbanding military organizations and obligating use of real names in financial and real estate transactions. His reform campaign faced strong resistance from the mainstream faction, but resulted in the upgrading and democratization of Korean society.
He was not without flaws. He dealt a heavy betrayal to his dissident political faction by joining hands with the general-turned-president Roh Tae-woo and the ruling party to beat his political rival and democracy movement partner Kim Dae-jung. Corruption and bribery scandals associated with his family members and aides, and the international bailout his government necessitated toward the end of his term, left an irremediable blot on his political career. What he had done and failed to do will have to be further studied. His last wish for his beloved countrymen was “unity” and “reconciliation.” He must have been saddened by the never-ending political and social conflict and distrust. May the big mountain rest in peace.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 23, Page 30