Moving on from a military government
The general election on April 24, 1988 opened up a new political landscape never before seen. With the three opposition parties taking the majority of the National Assembly, the ruling party became the minority, up against a fierce coalition.
The ruling Democratic Justice Party gained 125 seats, 25 less than the 150-seat majority, and my New Democratic Republican Party (NDRP) won 35 seats, which was enough for the party to exercise a casting vote.
The Peace and Democratic Party led by Kim Dae-jung took 70 seats, while his archrival Kim Young-sam’s Unification Democratic Party won 59. The opposition bloc, which had been left deeply disappointed by a defeat in the presidential election five months ago, was now reinvigorated.
But the depth of mistrust between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam ran deep. Even when they shook hands, their grasp wasn’t firm. Just watching them on the sidelines left me with a sense of disenchantment.
I, on the other hand, wanted to pursue the type of politics in which the people could feel a sense of friendship or comradery. To me, a competitor is someone who can motivate me to exceed them, not a person whom I must defeat at all costs. I tried to foster that kind of politics on my own, which was no easy task.
While I served as chairman of the opposition party, I had much more room to maneuver because my ultimate goal was not to become the head of state. With 35 seats, my party could exercise a casting vote on the direction of the opposition bloc. And no one from the opposition could dictate the political direction.
On May 2, less than a week after the general election, I wrote letters to the two Kims requesting a trilateral meeting to discuss domestic affairs. I could have simply picked up a phone to dial them or send an aide to deliver my message. But I believed a carefully written letter would move their minds and demonstrate my sincerity. For each character, I put my utmost care into every single brushstroke.
Two days later, I received replies from them both. They agreed to hold a three-way meeting and added that they had been impressed with my hand-written letter.
Back in the day, there were nuanced implications and intimacy in politics, even among rivals, as evidenced by my handwritten letters.
On May 18, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and I held our first trilateral meeting in eight years. The focus of our agreement was to examine the faults of the Chun Doo Hwan government.
We agreed to launch a special team to investigate his former military government and look into the atrocities committed during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.
Cooperation among the three opposition parties kicked off smoothly. But that didn’t mean we were on the same page on every issue. The two Kims competed to present a posture against the Roh Tae-woo government, while I placed priority on national interests and government stability.
The gap in politics was especially evident when the Kims’ parties objected to the Roh government’s nomination of Chung Ki-seung as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The Roh government’s nomination was voted down by the opposition majority in the Assembly - the first time such a nomination was rejected by parliament.
Two days later, President Roh nominated Lee Il-kyu for the same position and requested parliamentary approval. The NDRP that I led endorsed the nomination based on the principle that we should respect the presidential authority of the appointment and maintain the stability of the judicial branch.
The way in which I perceived and handled national affairs in contrast to the two Kims is best illustrated by both those Supreme Court nominations.
The biggest priority for the 13th National Assembly was to hold former President Chun Doo Hwan accountable for his illegitimate governance.
My approach to tackling the issue was three-pronged.
First, Chun would have to relinquish the fortune he accumulated during his presidency to the state and issue a formal apology to the nation. Second, President Roh should proceed to address the issues surrounding the former Chun government. And lastly, the three opposition parties would have to wrap up those issues in a forward-looking manner in a way that could bring about national unity.
I had long advocated that Chun apologize for his misdeeds, that a corruption probe be carried out and that his illegitimate wealth be returned. But I was firm that he should not be subject to legal punishment.
I have always thought forgiveness is much more powerful than punishment. In fact, I was once branded by the Chun government as corrupt and had to see my life’s work dissolved under his orders. To this day, I feel upset when I think about what he did to me.
Public sentiment was also turning rapidly against Chun. A group of university students even branded themselves as a Chun arrest squad and attempted to raid his house in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul. In November 1988, Chun and his wife sought refuge at a temple located deep in the mountains in Inje, Gangwon, to alleviate growing anger against his family.
That fury reached a peak on Dec. 31, 1989, as he stood before the National Assembly to serve as a witness. The hearing was soon interrupted by lawmakers who shouted at Chun and called him a murderer. Someone even threw a nameplate at him.
The hearing ended without sufficient answers, so I proposed that he be shown leniency despite all that he had done, arguing that it was better that he be able to return home than to a temple in the countryside.
My view of history is that we should distinguish the good from faults. While it had many faults, the Chun government also had some achievements. It was during the Chun Doo Hwan government that Korea won the bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics and that the country posted a trade surplus for the first time.
He was also the first president to step down after completing his term - his predecessors had all been forcibly removed from power. Nevertheless, Chun still carries the responsibility for his military coup, his subsequent takeover of power, the ruthless crackdown on the democracy uprising in Gwangju on May 18, 1980, and his accumulation of an illegal fortune.
In early 1990, the issues surrounding Chun’s government were coming to a close, and the political landscape was awaiting another big shift.
Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [email@example.com]