Goodbye to Mr. DemocracyWhen I heard that former President Kim Young-sam passed away, I was reminded of a cold winter day on Mount Jiri.
In the early morning of Jan. 12, 1987, Kim left an inn in Namwon, North Jeolla, and headed to Baemsagol in Mount Jiri with his aides. Only three weeks before, on Dec. 24, 1986, New Democratic Party chief Lee Min-wu proposed the so-called Lee Min-wu Plan, an intention to negotiate for a parliamentary system - if the ruling party was willing - with the stated intention of developing democracy.
Democratic Justice Party leader Roh Tae-woo responded that he would consider it, almost as though he had been waiting for the proposal.
Kim, then an advisor to the New Democratic Party, detected signs of political maneuvering.
Kim was 60 years old at the time, and he led the group on its climb up the mountain. Many fell behind. I almost gave up and sat down, but a member of the Hiking Club for Democracy urged me to keep walking. “If you don’t move, you will freeze to death.” In his memoir, Kim wrote, “In the thick snowstorm, I climbed all the way up to the Baemsagol Cabin without resting.” At the lodge, I took note of Kim praying, asking for “the courage to fight against the injustice.”
Three months later, Kim left the New Democratic Party with 40 Sangdo-dong faction lawmakers and 34 Donggyo-dong faction lawmakers, a substantial portion of the 90 members of the National Assembly. In May, he established the Unified Democratic Party with Kim Dae-jung and led the June Protest.
After he left the Blue House, Kim was criticized as an incompetent president. But in retrospect, he had far more accomplishments than mistakes in his political career. And he risked his life whenever Korea’s fledgling democracy was threatened. When those who seized power in the May 16 Coup reversed the pledge not to participate in civilian rule and proposed to extend military rule for four more years, Kim led protests and was arrested in 1963. As Kim fought against Park Chung Hee’s attempt to revise the constitution for the third term in 1969, he was attacked by terrorists and sprayed with acid. As the head of the New Democratic Party, he was visiting the United States when he learned that Park Chung Hee had declared the Yusin rule. He said that it was a “new coup d’etat” and immediately returned to organize the anti-Yusin struggle in 1972. In an interview with The New York Times Tokyo correspondent in 1979, Kim said that he had asked the United States to choose between the regime of Park Chung Hee or the majority desiring democracy, and the remark resulted in him being expelled from the National Assembly. In 1983, three years after the Gwangju democratization movement, he began a 23-day hunger strike calling for democracy. The life of this one politician was a series of extreme struggles and unbelievable fights.
To seize power, he chose to merge three parties during his term, which resulted in the tragic pitting of the Honam region against all others. It also led to the foreign currency crisis. Despite these faults, his drive for reform included the eradication of the Hana Society, disclosure of public officials’ assets, the investigation into corruption related to the Yulgok project, historical reassessment of the April 19, Dec. 12 and May 18 incidents, and the introduction of real-name financing. The reform measures constituted a bloodless revolution that drastically upgraded Korea’s democracy.
It is truly fortunate that his contributions are being re-evaluated upon his death. Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam were nearly killed four times, and if they hadn’t defended Korea’s democracy, Park Chung Hee’s contributions to industrialization would have been meaningless. Koreans had the balanced judgment to elect Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung as our leaders.
The absence of the two great leaders made us think about democracy, which the legendary politicians had treasured and attained. Democracy has become a common resource like water and air today, and many people take it for granted. But democracy had been a vulnerable sprout that Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had risked their lives to protect, and their fierce lives prove that democracy did not come for free. In the 1979 interview with The New York Times, Kim said, “I still firmly believe the best and only way to counter North Korea is the freedom of media, the freedom of assembly and the freedom to choose our government through free election.” A student of philosophy, Kim wrote his thesis on Immanuel Kant during the 1950-53 Korean War, and his pure philosophical beliefs inspired his fight for democracy.
When Kim Young-sam climbed Mount Jiri 28 years ago, he said, “I always fight, thinking today is the last day of my life.” I want to ask today’s politicians what efforts they are making for democracy. While Kim Young-sam fought against injustice, today’s politicians think only of themselves.
There are many tasks to be solved, but the leadership to tackle the problems is nowhere to be found.
In his memoir, Kim said, “The Korean media should be ashamed for distorting the truth and not properly reporting when their job is to record the important historic scenes of Korea’s democracy.” He lamented that when he went on his hunger strike in 1983 and newspapers treated it as though it was a bit of gossip. That day, the front-page stories were all about bear poaching.
I finally realized that Kim Young-sam’s hiking on that stormy day was his way of expressing his truth, which couldn’t be known otherwise. Kim devoted his life to democracy and left the world empty-handed. We pray that Mr. Democracy is resting in peace.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 2, Page 35
The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung