After merger, political divides begin to surface
A politician’s priority should be to guarantee the well-being of the people and stability. That principle should guide lawmakers at any point in their career.
Shortly after President Roh Tae-woo, opposition leader Kim Young-sam and I combined our political strength in a three-way merger, declaring we would bring an end to the era of partisan strife, internal divisions began to emerge - the result of three different political forces under the same roof.
While Roh’s group and mine represented the country’s industrialization, Kim Young-sam was leading his group on behalf of the nation’s democracy activists. Although Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung parted ways to compete for the presidency, they shared more philosophical similarities from their past struggle for democracy.
The first open conflict involved Kim Young-sam and Park Chul-un, who was then the political affairs minister.
President Roh gave Park a handwritten letter to give to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev asking him to assist Kim Young-sam in his official trip to the country. Park balked at what he perceived was an unjust order to assist Kim, a subordinate.
After his trip to the Soviet Union, Kim demanded that President Roh dismiss Park and refused to go to the party headquarters. But Park was not intimidated and instead warned Kim that he could jeopardize his political career by exposing Kim’s secrets in the lead-up to the creation of the Democratic Freedom Party (DFP).
He was immensely mistaken, however, in thinking that he could outmaneuver Kim, a veteran politician who had overcome daunting challenges.
Kim had a direct channel of communication to Roh and demanded the minister’s dismissal, which the president obliged.
The first clause of the party platform was that it would realize a responsible parliamentary democracy that answered to the people - which made it sound as though it was aiming toward a parliamentary system.
I told reporters that the platform was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to what we were actually striving for.
Three days before the convention, Park Jun-byung, the secretary of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, visited my house and showed me a memorandum of understanding that had been signed by President Roh and Kim Young-sam.
I was asked to write my signature next to Kim’s. On the memorandum, we pledged to amend the Constitution to switch from the presidential system to a parliamentary system in a year. But Kim rejected that pledge, and it was not addressed on the party platform.
Kim and President Roh collided over the proposal for a constitutional amendment to transition from a five-year single-term presidential system into a solely parliamentary system. In the end, Roh bowed to the pressure and reneged on the transition.
Even though he signed a memorandum promising a constitutional amendment within a year, he denied it was ever part of the party’s agenda item.
When the JoongAng Ilbo reported on the agreement on May 29 - 20 days after the party convention - Kim also denied such an agreement.
Since the report did not carry a photocopy of the agreement, Kim didn’t experience much political fallout. But on Oct. 25, the JoongAng Ilbo ran a second exclusive report about the agreement, this time with a photo, which immediately set off a political firestorm.
Kim, beleaguered by unfolding events, tried to shift the focus to who was behind the leak. He called for a thorough investigation and claimed that the pledge for a parliamentary system could not be prioritized above public demands.
His instincts worked, and on his way to his hometown of Masan, South Gyeongsang, he warned Roh that he should not repeat the mistakes of his predecessors by forcing a constitutional amendment.
Even though I respected Kim as the ruling party’s second-highest-ranking man and the country’s next leader, I could not tolerate his direct challenge to President Roh. I asked him to behave like a proper statesman, taking into consideration logic and principle.
Roh eventually succumbed and sent his aid to Masan to tell Kim he would not pursue a parliamentary system. While Roh appeared to support a parliamentary system led by a prime minister, he was not, in fact, a true believer in it.
The steps required to change the Constitution were also daunting: It required the consent of two-thirds of lawmakers to pass and more than 50 percent of the vote on a national referendum.
Public sentiment was also leaning toward a presidential system, but Roh still could have achieved the parliamentary system against all odds if he had stood up for it.
For anything else, the ruling party at the time was commanding more than two-thirds of lawmakers thanks to the merger. By definition, a parliamentary system enables political compromise and consent, while the presidential system invests too much power in the president and tempts them to wield unrestrained authority.
President Roh once told me that he began to mull over the parliamentary system after witnessing the abuse of presidential power by his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan.
Under Korea’s current presidential system, which bans a second term after a single five-year term, the president is greatly restrained from laying out a framework for the country over the long run. I still believe the country needs to introduce a parliamentary system as a turning point for national growth.
If Roh had sincerely pushed for the change and disclosed a memorandum of understanding promising a constitutional revision, Kim would not have threatened to leave the party.
The momentum for a parliamentary system quickly dissolved after Roh relented.
Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [email@example.com]