Thank you, Mr. PresidentI was at a concert in Kintex Center in Ilsan, Gyeonggi, last weekend. A female member of the audience in her 70s was swaying to a performance by singer Cho Yong-pil, who is also way past his 60s. Cho’s voice was as powerful as ever and has a resonance enriched with age.
“You’re my trampoline. You make my heart bounce!” he sang. These are the lyrics of his most recent hit song, “Bounce.” A trampoline is a recreational apparatus made of a strong canvas sheet attached by springs to a metal frame. Kids jump on it, high into the air.
I imagined the beating of the heart of the female audience member, memories of a long-faded love strummed by the song and Cho’s performance. A short time later, I learned of the passing of former President Kim Young-sam. Slightly after midnight on Sunday, the trampoline of Korea’s democracy movement stopped working.
Kim gave traction to the country’s pro-democracy movement. He showed what democracy was all about. We idealized the concept under repeated dictatorships. When most of the masses blindly followed the orders of the dictators, Kim played an entirely different chord. Born to a wealthy fishing family, he joined politics as a secretary to a ruling party lawmaker to become the youngest legislator in Korea. After becoming a dissident, the young opposition lawmaker in his 40s stood up bravely and boldly against the much-feared general-turned-president, Park Chung Hee. Through his youthful fearlessness, idealism took form as conviction.
His dissident partner, Kim Dae-jung, was wise and cool-headed. Kim Young-sam, on the other hand, was naive and tender. He drew dissident followers because of his humane and engaging character. He did not let the united force or energy go to waste. He kept up our faith in democracy, took care of factory workers and went on a hunger strike. He endured house arrest under another general-turned-president, Chun Doo Hwan, for three years. He kept his ideals until the military regime finally ended. He saw victory after fighting on the harsh and even life-threatening opposition front for 30 years. He was the rare politician who moved and warmed people’s hearts even in the coldest days under military rule.
His cooperation with the last military regime of President Roh Tae-woo - following constitutional reform ensuring a peaceful transfer of power and direct presidential elections - may have been inevitable and a necessary stepping stone for the historic transition to democracy. His ambition to become president paved the way for the first civilian government.
If he had pursued that dream entirely out of self-indulgence, he would not have implemented a series of fiercely-resisted reforms such as the obligation of using real names in financial and real estate transactions, disclosure of personal wealth of public officials, disbanding of military organizations and economic liberalization.
If he wanted to extend his power, he would not have attempted reforms in labor laws and public pensions. He would not have recruited uncompromising Supreme Court Justice Lee Hoi-chang as his prime minister to spearhead a reform drive. He sometimes went back on his words, but he nevertheless remained loyal to his commitment to the principles of democracy. That is why thousands of people who lived through the tumultuous 1970s and ’80s are mourning him - to thank him and remember him as a light in the dark old days.
World history shows that a strong leader is born to a country when its per capita income is around $10,000. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and French President Francois Mitterrand were some of them. They led their countries in transitional times. They cleaned out the old paradigms to carve out a new path. Kohl did the groundwork for unification, Thatcher and Reagan together initiated neoliberalism and Mitterrand marshaled Europe towards integration.
Kim, too, served as a tipping point by ending the chapter of military rule to open an entirely new one of democracy in Korea. What he attempted was not replacement or renovation but reinvention and retooling for an entirely new system. It was a bold and risky challenge against the mainstream. He paid a dear price by sending the country to seek an international bailout after Korea’s financial crisis in the late 1990s. His successor, Kim Dae-jung, finished off the construction of a democratic political framework his lifelong political rival had started.
After the two charismatic Kims exited the political stage, Korean politics has been remarkably retooled over the last decade or so. Sadly, however, Korea’s political fundamentals have failed to change. The two Kims gave birth and groomed a strong and diverse lineage of intelligent and passionate political descendants. But what they tend to deliver is annoying cacophony, making the public more and more irritated and apathetic towards politics.
Regardless of what he has done as a politician and statesman, Kim will be remembered. He will be dear in our memories and enshrined in Korean history for stirring and warming our hearts. His departure from the stage makes our hearts ache and long for a “trampoline” that “will embrace the scars of broken love.” We thank you, Mr. President.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 24, Page 31
By Song Ho-keun
*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.