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Lessons from Kim Dae-jung's pragmatism
Publication Date : 22-08-2014
Senior members of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy held a breakfast meeting Monday to discuss measures to overhaul their embattled party in the wake of its crushing defeat in the July 30 parliamentary by-elections. But they hurriedly ended the meeting to attend an event, the date of which must have been circled in red on their calendars - the fifth anniversary of the death of late President Kim Dae-jung.
A crowd of politicians from across the political spectrum gathered at the memorial service for the deceased leader, who devoted his life to fighting for democracy and became the country’s first liberal president after winning the 1997 election.
The NPAD, the latest in a string of parties founded on Kim’s political legacy, has cherished his memory. But its members attending the memorial service seemed to miss the late president more acutely than usual, in a reflection of their anxiety and frustration with the party that can see no way out of its complicated predicament. Rep. Park Young-sun, the party’s interim leader, who is tasked with reforming it before its national convention early next year, said at the event that she longed for the deceased president more than ever.
What Park and other NPAD officials should now be reminded of, however, is how Kim came to take the helm of the nation against the odds, rather than his days in power.
Evaluations on specific aspects of his legacy may differ from person to person. But few would dispute his persistent efforts to seize the central ground of the political spectrum to achieve practical politics focused on the quality of ordinary people’s lives, while maintaining fundamental liberal values. Kim showed increasing political flexibility in the course of his four presidential challenges.
In his last and most successful bid for the presidency, Kim did whatever he could to place himself and his party in the central ground to win support from the moderate electorate. He drew a broad group of experts from various fields into his party and gave them key posts. He worked with seasoned conservative politician Kim Jong-pil, promising to share power if elected, and visited the birthplace of late dictatorial President Park Chung-hee, who harshly persecuted him. Throughout the campaign, he kept his eye on the immediate issues voters cared most about.
These efforts enabled him to win a narrow victory against the conservative ruling party candidate, despite his opponents’ attempts to lock him in regional and ideological frameworks.
His pragmatic approach drew criticism from his liberal and progressive constituents. But had he not done this, Kim could never have seized the opportunity to pursue his vision for improving inequality and human rights in South Korea and promoting reconciliation with the North.
Some may disagree with parts of what DJ - as he was often called by the media and in informal conversation - did or attempted to do. But he was efficient and thorough in achieving the goals of an opposition party: keeping the governing party in proper check and eventually winning back power.
In his eyes, the NPAD may look as if it is trying to be framed in perennial opposition by leaving itself crippled by factional feuds and ignoring voters’ practical interests. Internal discord has strengthened voices of left-leaning hardliners in the party, who joined hands with progressive civic activists in confronting the conservative ruling bloc, rejecting any compromise.
Portraits of the late president are hung on the walls of the offices of the main opposition party. Looking up at them, NPAD officials need to think of what DJ would have done to pull their party out of its current predicament and win back power in the 2017 presidential vote, which will be preceded by parliamentary elections in 2016.
He would not have blocked the passage of bills submitted by the administration to reinvigorate the sluggish economy. He might not have turned down a compromise deal reached between floor leaders of the rival parties on a proposed law aimed at uncovering the truth behind the April 16 ferry disaster, persuading victims’ families to accept it. He would not have allowed himself to be distracted by intransigent activists outside of the party, but could have led them in his way with long-term vision and specific agenda.
Kim might also have thought it inappropriate to display a wreath sent from North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un at his memorial service held at the Seoul National Cemetery, where South Korean soldiers killed during the 1950-53 war and other provocations by Pyongyang are buried.
Indeed, Kim received the Nobel Peace Prize after holding the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 with then-North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il, the late father of the communist state’s incumbent leader. But he would have expected his political heirs to exercise wisdom to avoid further estranging moderate and rational voters, whose support he had sought so desperately, by the insensitive display of the wreath.
Kim Kyung-ho is an editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.