Three parties come together to go forward
On Jan. 21, 1990, Seoul experienced a political jolt. That day, three political parties - the ruling Democratic Justice Party, and the opposition Democratic Unification Party and New Democratic Republican Party - notified their lawmakers that they would be merged the next day.
The Roh Tae-woo administration had two separate channels to conclude terms for the merger with the two opposition parties, one of which was chaired by myself and the other by Kim Young-sam.
I was already aware of President Roh’s covert channel with Kim Young-sam’s party but never had I expected that the three-way merger would be announced the same day. Later I found out that Kim Young-sam had believed that it was a two-way merger between his and the ruling party, without my involvement.
But there was one episode that had me furious at the Blue House and almost led me to renege on the agreement.
Kim Yong-hwan, the director of the Republican Party’s policy team, visited my house and told me that President Roh had agreed with Kim Young-sam to hold a bilateral meeting the first thing tomorrow, before holding a trilateral meeting with me in the afternoon. Roh was therefore requesting a meeting with me at 2 p.m., after finishing the one-on-one talks with Kim.
It was a request I could not accept - no matter what. Given that I was the one who had first floated the idea of a conservative coalition to President Roh, there was no way I would accept the terms of this meeting.
“I will drop the merger plan. Discard the agreement from yesterday. I don’t care anymore!” I said.
I instructed my aides not to answer any calls from the Blue House from that point on.
Around 1 a.m. the following day, Presidential Chief of Staff Hong Sung-chul visited my house and apologized. “I was unwise, sir,” he said. “We readjusted the three-way meeting for 10 a.m. I apologize for causing trouble.”
Roh had apparently changed his mind after being informed of my reaction. It was an incident that led me to see him as a man who lacked the ability to prioritize in complex situations, and prone to being swayed by outside advice.
President Roh, Kim Young-sam and I met together at the Blue House on Jan. 22, a Sunday.
On the working level, there had already been a nine-point agreement drawn up beforehand. But we found that there was a considerable gap in how we believed the new party should be operated. Kim objected to my proposal to amend the Constitution to replace the presidential system with a cabinet system, citing many critics within his party.
It was initially agreed that we would stipulate our common goal to adopt a cabinet system through a constitutional amendment before the next general election. Instead, we made the phrasing ambiguous, stating that the party would work to create a political system and culture most suitable to the Korean political system and its development.
Kim Young-sam also made an absurd argument for the leadership structure of the envisioned party. He insisted that he should lead the party as chairman, while President Roh would be relegated as honorary chairman, which held no real authority. He then suggested that I serve on the party’s supreme council, which would be under his command.
I was speechless. Under the constitutional structure, power is vested in the president, the top position in the government and in the ruling party.
President Roh tried to gently refute Kim’s demand, but that didn’t stop him from repeating it.
“Chairman Kim, why don’t we move on to the next issue?” I said.
“In the next act, you will be the main actor on stage. I will help you, under the assumption that I will be the one assisting you,” I added, which delighted him.
President Roh also agreed.
I didn’t feel comfortable discussing Kim’s hypothetical election as president, especially in front of the incumbent, but the remark markedly lightened the atmosphere.
Our meeting lasted nearly nine hours, and outside, our aides were nervously awaiting the outcome, which would determine their political affiliation. Some assumed the talks were punctuated with fierce debate and discord. But that wasn’t really the case. We talked about trivial things, too, like personal issues or historical topics. It was more of an opportunity for us to get to know one another and build trust.
At 7 p.m., President Roh, flanked between me and Kim Young-sam, announced to a throng of reporters the merger of the three parties.
“We are here tonight to stand before the people in order to lay down the path for a new history,” Roh read. “We have decided to put an end to this vicious cycle of partisan strife and confrontation. We have decided to get rid of old politics stricken with rejection, confrontation and the struggle for power and conflict.”
The announcement marked the inception of a new ruling power - the Democratic Freedom Party.
It was later discovered that President Roh had also proposed a merger to Kim Dae-jung, who led the opposition Peace Democratic Party, though he wasn’t as serious about the offer as he was with Kim Young-sam.
Kim Dae-jung rejected the idea anyway, knowing that the members of Roh’s party had a deep distrust toward his support base in Jeolla. Kim must have figured a merger of the two wouldn’t do any good politically.
On the other hand, Kim Young-sam calculated that he would have little chance of beating his archrival, Kim Dae-jung, if he didn’t combine his political strength with that of Roh’s supporters and mine.
But regarding the merger, I had a totally different mindset. I was acting on the belief that it would contribute to the country by helping President Roh achieve his signature policy projects, which included extending diplomatic channels with the Communist bloc in the North.
I also wanted to move the country forward with a conservative coalition. My goal was to continue to move the country forward.
Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [firstname.lastname@example.org]