At the peak of his power
The leadership of Kim Chong-in, the interim chairman of the Minjoo Party of Korea, is standing out in the political arena. When he was first appointed, many said he was only a decoration and a figurehead, but the ridicule is now gone. He stopped the opposition lawmakers’ filibuster; he suggested that the opposition party needs to listen to the government’s argument for shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex. He even brought up the possibility of North Korea’s collapse. He drew a line on the so-called comfort women issue, saying it was hard to renegotiate the recent settlement with Japan. He has nerves of steel, and he is seasoned. To understand the very basis of him, I met two close associates of Kim - one conservative and one liberal - and asked about him.
Q. Previously, Kim was only known as a strategist.
A. To be considered just a strategist is wrong, he is a man of too great a caliber and too strong character. It is also a misunderstanding to treat him as an economist. The only book he authored was “Why Economic Democratization Now?” He wrote it in 2012. He is actually a politician. He learned politics since his childhood from his grandfather Kim Byung-ro, the first Supreme Court chief justice . When he was in his 20s, he became the political secretary of his grandfather, and since his 40s, he stayed in the political arena, working as a lawmaker, a senior economic affairs secretary to the president and a minister.
Because he worked for both ruling and opposition parties, he was criticized as a migratory bird.
Kim is a realistic reformist. He majored in German finance when he was studying abroad, and that is closely linked to state capitalism. That is why he is prompting social welfare and reform of conglomerates. At the same time, he is a conservative on national security matters; he is strongly pro-American in foreign affairs. He said he had worked both for the ruling and opposition parties, but he never changed his principles and philosophy. Political affiliations are not enough to understand him fully.
Where do his leadership and destructive powers come from?
He talks and acts based on his long-time beliefs. An opposition party in Korea wins when it moves to the center and loses when it leans to the left. “You cannot win an election with only passionate supporters. Politics are not student movements,” he has said many times. He reads the public sentiment accurately and sees moves several steps ahead. The proposal of a liberal merger was a fearsome move. With that proposal, he won the justification to remove the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction and former student activist group during the nomination process.
Will he really be able to remove the former student activists?
Kim’s most important competitive factor is that he has nothing to lose. He has a significant inheritance, and both he and his wife were professors and they are economically affluent. He said he can leave anytime without any lingering feeling, and those are not empty words. The problem, however, is that lawmakers who are in the pro-Roh faction and former student activists played key roles during the filibuster process. The next 10 days of the nomination period will be the key moment to see how far he will go to change the opposition party.
The former student activists are skilled fighters.
Kim is also at the peak of his life. He works out at a gym every day, and his memory is extremely bright. He is fresh but seasoned. He is a tough challenge for the former activists to tackle. When a 76-year-old politician reminds them of what they said in the past, it is hard to refute. And his personal network is wide and deep, ranging from Chung Un-chan and Park Young-sun to Sim Sang-jung and Roh Hoe-chan.
Is the April 13 general election also Kim’s expiration date?
His leadership will be shaken the moment he is nominated as a proportional representative candidate. That will be greed. He went to a bankrupt company as a court-appointed manager. After changing the Minjoo Party’s governance structure and seeing profits with the reform, he must step down while he is respected. The best choice will be playing a role as a proper, effective leader and leave.
Tasks including a liberal merger are still left until the presidential election.
Recently, Seoul National University Prof. Cho Kuk warned through a social networking service that the liberals must not submit blindly to Kim’s decisive leadership because he may try to become a kingmaker after April. In fact, there is always a chance that Kim’s seasoned moves and straightforward language might be criticized as high-handed and obstinate. After President Park Geun-hye used him and abandoned him three years ago, Kim dismissed the campaign. His long-time aide told Kim, in tears, that he must try to become a president rather than making one. Kim just smiled.
Kim is salvaging the sinking Minjoo Party quickly. Today, the Saenuri Party is disappointing the public more than the opposition. It is impressive that a new leadership suddenly emerged in the Korean political arena, which has been marred by ideological and factional fights for a long time. I wonder how long his power will remain effective. JoongAng Ilbo, March 7, Page 34
*The author is a senior editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho
More in Columns
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency