The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Two men crossed my mind when I saw the news that former President Chun Doo Hwan had died. One was Kim Dong-gwan, who once was a handsome and warm-hearted political science student. After his second year at university, he started his military duty. In May 1980, he was dispatched to suppress democracy protesters in Gwangju as a member of the special forces. He endlessly blamed himself for aiming his rifle at the protestors, was admitted to a mental institution later and still struggles there.
The other man was Jeon Seong, who yearned for democracy. He was arrested for leading a protest to condemn the bloody crackdown in Gwangju. His days of youth passed while he served three prison terms. He later passed the bar exam and became a lawyer. He filed a lawsuit against the government to recognize his college friend, Kim, as a man of distinguished service, and won the case in the Supreme Court.
The Gwangju massacre by Chun’s junta left indelible scars on the two men’s lives. They are, however, just two of many victims. The Chun regime arrested 1,000 university students for their protests against its dictatorship. Human rights violations such as imprisonment, torture and suspicious deaths were part of everyday life. Press guidelines suppressed press freedom. It was a time of savagery in which the people were forced to live as slaves.
When he was alive, Chun refused to give any apology. After his death, his wife said, “On behalf of my husband, I want to offer a deep apology to the people who suffered and were hurt during his presidential term.” But she remained silent about the massacre in May 1980, which took place before he started his presidential term on Sept. 1, 1980.
And yet, Chun’s presidency had some undeniable accomplishments. He was able to accomplish growth, inflation control and a healthy balance of payments. Korea had its largest economic boom ever. The country’ international prestige was heightened by hosting the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Chun also accepted a change to a single-term presidency to start a path toward democracy. He delegated all economic authority to his senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, Kim Jae-ik, telling him, “You are the president when it comes to the economy.” It was an exemplary delegation of power.
Chun appointed Park Chul-un as a point man for more than 30 secret talks with North Korea. Park later said that the 1991 Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula were possible because of such efforts. Chun tried to overcome the lack of legitimacy of his rule with accomplishments. Over the issue of the cruel crackdown in Gwangju, however, his rational judgment seemed to fail him. He never admitted to his responsibility nor offered an apology. There is no way for him to be forgiven for his brutal crime.
The conservatives must repent and reflect on themselves. While condemning the wrongdoings of Park Chung Hee and Chun, the liberals accept their accomplishments. But the conservatives refuse to talk about their wrongdoings. The legacies of dictatorships, massacres and human rights violations still linger, but the conservatives turn a blind eye. They only emphasize their economic accomplishments — a manifestation of the Rashomon Effect.
Korea has become an advanced country. It is the world’s 10th largest economy and fifth largest technology innovator. Our pop culture is captivating the world. Korea’s competitors are not developing nations anymore. To compete with the United States, Europe, Japan and China, a strong survival strategy is needed — and internal unity is a must. Only then can Korea become a leader in economy, foreign affairs and national security.
The conservatives who have built our present must change. They must accept the wrongdoings of the dictatorships and offer an apology. They must kneel before the people of Gwangju. Only then will there be unity. The late President Roh Tae-woo and his surviving family have set an example. The offspring of Park Chung Hee and Chun must join the arena of reconciliation. That will help end the high-handedness of former student activists, who have long justified their undemocratic acts in the name of fighting against the legacies of Park and Chun.
The late President Kim Dae-jung — a symbol of liberalism and democratization — was kidnapped during the Park regime. During the Chun presidency, he was sentenced to death. He was rescued by the United States. But after he became the president, Kim forgave his foes and respected them as former presidents. He named Park’s confidante Kim Jong-pil as prime minister and Chun’s aide Kim Joong-kwon as his chief of staff.
The time has come for supporters of Park and Chun to atone for the pains of democracy fighters and accept their contribution to the development of democracy. Only when they cross the river of dictatorship, they can be freed from their sins.
Korea was an island. The movement of May ‘68 in France reached Europe, the U.S., Japan and even South America. Equality, gender equity, human rights, communalism and ecology all emerged at the same time. In Germany, Nazism, which even produced a chancellor after the war, was finally dismantled. But Korea’s anti-communist dictatorships blocked this process, and the country’s cultural advancement was seriously delayed.
But we have Kim Soo-young, the poet and a symbol of a free thinker. He was the warrior who protected the human dignity of the country after overcoming the pains of colonization, being a prisoner of war and a failed revolution. He still asks us if we really know “the sorrow of a transparent movement toward a dawn without submitting to winds and night,” as he wrote in a poem in 1958.
As if he had predicted that supporters of Park and Chun would refuse to confess their sins, Kim is scolding them. He is urging the slaves blocking the advancement of history to come out of their cave and breathe the freedom of the wilderness.