On a tour of Mokpo and islands off the southwestern port last week, I paid a visit to the Kim Dae-jung Nobel Peace Prize Memorial located in Samhakdo islet.
Most impressive there was a picture on the wall showing the former president standing side by side with four of his predecessors during a reception in the Blue House. Roh Tae-woo, Choi Kyu-hah, Kim Dae-jung, Chun Doo-hwan and Kim Young-sam were posing comfortably accompanied by their wives.
The photograph was taken right after Kim Dae-jung’s inauguration in February 1998. The black-and-white image led me to think of the great diversity of the fates of our one-time leaders, including those who were not shown in the picture.
Chun and Roh, the two military leaders who had held presidency in succession, were convicted of treason during the Kim Young-sam’s rule but were pardoned by him. Court orders to repay the huge amounts of illegal funds the collected from corporate heads have dogged them, but they now live as free as any of their neighbors in the upscale Yeonhi-dong, western Seoul, although Roh is in bad health. Choi and the two Kims are dead.
Kim Dae-jung, who was elected in his fourth try, particularly celebrated what was termed “horizontal transfer of power” from the ruling to opposition party for the first time in the republic’s history, but was known for giving up political retaliation. He even retained the prosecutor general to serve out his two-year term, although it was seen as a reward for shelving investigations into a money scandal prior to the election.
No prime minister or Cabinet members of the previous administration were arrested for corruption or any other charges during the Kim Dae-jung’s presidency, while his own son was jailed for influence peddling. Skeptics linked his tolerance to his ambition for a Nobel Peace Prize, which he eventually won in 2000 after his “sunshine approach” toward North Korea culminating in summit talks with Chairman Kim Jong-il. As I moved about in the memorial hall, his taped voice reverberated: “Forgiveness gives you peace of mind…”
Park Chung-hee kidnapped him from Tokyo in 1973 and subsequently placed him under arrest for years and Chun Doo-hwan’s troops killed hundreds of civilians of Gwangju demonstrating in his support in 1980. Sentenced to death in a court martial, he was sent on exile to the United States. Was he simply too busy to take revenge on the military under pressing economic challenges, or was he just emulating Nelson Mandela of South Africa, as some alleged?
Overseas commentators appraised Korean wisdom and restraint shown in the transition from military dictatorship to democracy, avoiding bloodshed and outright retaliations. Chun’s successor Roh successfully kept the civilian opposition divided among the “three Kims” – Kim Young-sam, Kin Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil -- in the 1987 election to clinch victory. He then merged his party with his opposition rivals Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil to form a majority conservative party and complete civilian control. Then, five years later, the first leftist government was born under Kim Dae-jung.
Leftism extended five more years through the Roh Moo-hyun presidency, which was taken over by conservative Lee Myung-bak, who was then succeeded by his internal contender Park Geun-hye in 2013. Lee, 77, was given a 15-year term for bribery and illegal business, which is pending Supreme Court appeal. Park, 67, is in hospital after a 33-year sentence for corruption and abuse of power with the top court fiddling about with her appeal.
Now, look at what has become of the model of political and economic development in East Asia. Mass demonstrations fill the main squares of Seoul and major cities on weekends competing with the spectacles in Hong Kong. The nation already divided between the north and south is split left and right; people on either side try to execute democracy on their own on behalf of parliament that is nearly inoperative.
The situation in South Korea changes fast. The moribund conservatives after the impeachment of former President Park were resuscitated under public complaints of economic malfeasance and excessive political retaliation of the Moon Jae-in presidency. The Cho Kuk scandal accelerated the decline of Moon’s popularity and, as the counterforce surged, the leftist warriors felt threats to their power. They rallied around the new justice minister who has championed the progressive ideology. Cho’s moral deficiency did not matter to them.
President Moon who had promised reform of powerful agencies during his campaign tried a two-top system in law enforcement by naming Cho, an outspoken law professor who had assisted him as top civil affairs aide, as justice minister overseeing the prosecution organization. Unfortunately, the nominee’s closet had too many skeletons and the ever-anxious media unleashed an avalanche of moral and financial improprieties involving his immediate family and relatives along with his own dirty linens.
An embarrassing drama unfolded as new Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol showed great enthusiasm in digging into allegations about Cho. When his objection to Cho’s appointment was ignored by the president, Yoon launched exhaustive investigations into all suspicions about the new minister and his family. Yoon’s scheme is clear: if Cho is found faultless through relentless probing, the president’s appointment is justified; if prosecutors uncover decisive defects about Cho, the prosecution chief will emerge heroic.
While the Yoon-Cho showdown reveals a peculiar conflict within the power group, the conservative opposition rank is much in disorder. Yet, the ruling Democratic Party’s strategy to demonstrate support for Cho Kuk with large-scale rallies before the prosecution headquarters in Seocho-dong over the past few weeks have boomeranged.
Almost all right-wing groups, including the disunited Protestant Christian society, joined force with the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and the splinter Our Republican Party to hold massive demonstrations at Gwanghwamun Square from the Oct. 3 National Day onward. The Seocho-dong rallies were better organized but the opposing Gwanghwamun crowd was bigger and protests spread to other major cities.
Physically, Seoul is divided into two and the superiority in the people’s choice may not be determined until the elections next year. Before that we have to ask President Moon whether the two-month row over the naming of a Cabinet minister is worth tearing the nation apart. Cho is a valuable asset for a government stronger in talking than working. He can do better playing prompter for his master than administering “justice” for 50 million people.
Kim Myong-sik served as an editorial writer for The Korea Herald after retiring as managing editor for The Korea Times. -- Ed.