Learn from Kim Young-sam

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Learn from Kim Young-sam

Chang Se-jeong
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Two days after the fifth anniversary of former president Kim Young-sam’s passing on Nov. 22, I visited his residence in Sangdo-dong in southern Seoul. Some locals were chatting, so I talked to them. They remember the accomplishments of the former president who fought hard against Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship and contributed to the country’s democratization.

When I brought up the liberal Moon Jae-in administration, a local who claimed to be a neighbor of the former president for 50 years raised his voice suddenly. “This government is killing accomplishments of Presidents Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Kim Young-sam. This government’s people are the second squadron of North Korea and push for any policies they want. They don’t listen to other voices. Democracy in Korea is long dead.”

It is clearly abnormal for a Korean citizen says “democracy is dead” after the epic democratization in 1987. So I met with 79-year-old Kim Deog-ryong, director of the Kim Young-sam Center for Democracy. He is from the Honam region and is a notable Sangdo-dong faction member who assisted Kim. I was surprised when he left the Grand National Party and supported President Moon Jae-in before the 2012 presidential election. Since the 2017 presidential election, he served as the senior vice chairman of the National Unification Advisory Council but is not affiliated with any political party. The following is an interview with him.

Q. A Sangdo-dong local I met today said, “Democracy is dead.”

A. I reflect if I still have the initial ideas from the democratization movement. We need to look back whether they are turning into arrogance, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and corruption without knowing.

Is this a democracy that the former president dreamed of as he went on a hunger strike?

He dreamed of a country where people can choose their leader, personal liberty is guaranteed and people are treated as owners. After the civilian government was established in 1993, local autonomy was revived, and systematic democracy was realized. But there is no completion of democracy. Democracy can always regress and be damaged, so you need to watch it all the time.

Former President Kim respected public opinion and reflected people’s voices in state affairs.

He was a master of listening. He had clear standards of reward and punishment and was strict about corruption. When allegations involving his son arose, he called the prosecutor general and asked why he was not in custody.

When did democracy start to shake after democratization?

In the late days of the Lee Myung-bak administration and especially the Park Geun-hye administration, our democracy returned to authoritarianism and basic values of democracy were shaken. Park especially lacked understanding, belief and philosophy about democracy. As I thought democracy must not regress, I supported Moon Jae-in.

Then why some people call this government “dictatorial?”

I declared my support for Moon in exchange for constitutional revision to change our imperial presidency. I was the vice chairman of the National Unification Advisory Council, but I hadn’t had a lot of time to talk to the president. He is clearly a good person, but I am skeptical of his leadership. A leader sometimes should be decisive, negotiate with the opposition party and compromise.

A leftist figure even compared Moon to a “king.”

Power often leads to self-righteousness and arrogance. Pushing with the power of number deviates from the basics of democracy. I also find his rewards and punishments are not enough. In real estate policy, homeowners are considered sinners, so those without homes also suffer. People don’t seem to trust this government’s problem-solving skills. Korean people are wise but don’t have luck with their leaders.

The controversy over the construction of a new airport in Gadeok Island is turning democracy into populism.

The ruling party got majority in the April 15 parliamentary elections so as not to engage in “legislative dictatorship.” It was an order to prioritize national interests and engage in politics to make people’s lives better through consensus between ruling and opposition parties. If the ruling party only pushes policies that will win votes and favorable to maintain power, the country will collapse in the end. People will abandon them.

Say something harsh about the current president.

Former president Kim Young-sam was honest and frank. He was a leader who did not avoid responsibility, admitted faults immediately and possessed the courage to apologize. He was strict on himself and generous to others. He did not transfer responsibility to the opposition party. He did not obsess over small things, and maintained the stance on major deals. I want the fifth anniversary of his passing to be a chance to reevaluate his leadership. Democracy is about persuasion and compromise. President Moon must pursue politics of compromise.

Kim Young-sam and Moon Jae-in are both from Geoje Island, South Gyeongsang, and went to Kyungnam High School. It is ironic and fortunate that Kim’s democratic communication skills are highlighted thanks to President Moon. Moon should seriously study Kim’s communication skills.

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