Determined to take a different path in a new era
A new era is like a white canvas. You make your imprint like a brush stroke on a canvas, and the people of Korea were just doing that in Seoul during the spring of 1980, with rising hopes for democracy and a new sense of freedom.
But that hope was crushed by Chun Doo Hwan’s military junta, which forced me to live overseas for six years and accused me of being corrupt, stripping me of all my political titles.
Following my return, I began to prepare the commemoration to mark the seventh anniversary of the death of Park Chung Hee. Before then, the Chun government had consistently tried to interfere with the hosting of an event.
Around that time, Chang Se-dong, the director of the intelligence agency and one of Chun’s confidants, attempted to intimidate me in an effort to foil my plans.
One day, he called me into his room at Plaza Hotel in Seoul.
“I asked you to stop your plans for a commemoration,” he said. “It also appears you’re getting ready to resume your political career. But that simply can’t happen. You will face challenges if you do.”
I was furious.
“Hey, do you see what is going to happen tomorrow?” I asked. “You’d better not see it, for your own sake. I will remember this talk. Nothing in the world can stop me from hosting this event.
“I have done things in my life you can’t even imagine, so you should be the one who should be careful of your deeds.”
He sat there in silence.
The authorities were apparently fretting about my potential role in politics, and the government ended up deploying childlike tactics to interfere with the commemoration. It pressured the bus company we had paid to transport guests and delayed the delivery of their invitations in post.
They even stationed military guards at the highway toll gate from Gumi, North Gyeongsang, Park’s hometown, to turn away a Seoul-bound bus.
But despite these interruptions, we held the commemoration publicly, the first time in seven years. Nearly 13,000 people from around the country attended. And President Chun Doo Hwan and ruling party Chairman Roh Tae-woo sent flowers - likely knowing what Chang Se-dong had done to obstruct the event.
“Until now, Park Chung Hee has been wrongfully criticized and we, his supporters, have also been shamed [by the government],” I said in my address. “But in spite of all of it, we have withstood all the odds. … We will make sure his glorious achievements are not in vain.”
Some have criticized me for not actively taking part in the struggle for democracy that eventually paved the way in 1987 to the June 29 Declaration - claiming that I was only interested in enjoying the fruits of the democratic achievement made possible by the sacrifices of many others.
Until now, I just laughed and never explained or refuted that point. But let me clarify now.
I took a political path different than that of Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. And as a man going in a completely different direction, I couldn’t just suddenly join hands with them.
I could not commit myself to the Unification Democratic Party led by Kim Young-sam or Kim Dae-jung’s political group. They had dedicated their political careers to fighting against the Park Chung Hee government and continued to do so against the Chun Doo Hwan government, which was built on a constitution similar to the Yushin Constitution that enabled Chun to hold onto his power without direct elections.
I considered supporters of the Park government to be part of a modernizing force in Korea, and therefore it was our obligation to take an alternate approach.
I was in a position to take responsibility for both the successes and failures of the Park administration. No matter whether I liked it or not, I couldn’t blame the faults made by the people who had once worked for him. Some people said I was a remnant of the Yushin era, but I countered by saying I was, in fact, at the center of the Yushin era.
It was my way of taking responsibility for the Park government.
I saw the role of correcting the mistakes of the Chun regime to be more fitting as my political responsibility because I had experience running a government.
Also, the two Kims and I were different by our nature as well as in our political ambitions.
They were preoccupied with the idea that they would one day be the next elected presidents. But I wasn’t interested in winning power. I was interested enriching the country and making sure the people were comfortable. Throughout my political career, becoming president was never my ultimate goal.
I had even always thought that either Kim could paint the canvas with a new brush as president. That Park Chung Hee had transformed the country into an economic power house from the remnants of war would never change. As long as that fact remained intact, I figured it wouldn’t really matter who became the next president. I wanted the flower of democracy to blossom on the firm ground of economic prosperity.
I decided to run in the 1987 presidential election not because I sought the presidency but because it was a necessary process in which to form a political party.
I needed momentum to draw in talent for the general election the next year, so I registered my candidacy for the presidential election after forming the New Democratic Republican Party on Oct. 30, 1987.
On Dec. 16, 1987 - election day - Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung received 28 percent and 27 percent of the votes, respectively, losing out to ruling party contender Roh Tae-woo, who won with 36.7 percent. I took 8.1 percent.
The reason they lost was because, in their obsession for victory, they didn’t see that a political merger would give them the advantage.
Two days before the polls, I proposed talks with Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung in a last-ditch effort for a unified candidacy.
Kim Young-sam said that he would drop down if I dropped out and endorsed him, while Kim Dae-jung turned down my suggestion altogether, saying his rival would never concede his bid. I ended up coming in fourth place, but still, I had won an invaluable 1.8 million votes.
I was determined to paint a new picture on a white canvas, with those 1.8 million ballots in my mind.
Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [email@example.com]