Kim Young-sam, a great man of South Korea’s contemporary history and one of two former South Korean presidents whose last name was Kim, passed away at the age of 88 on November 22, 2015. Geojedo Island, where he was born, now looks almost like the mainland, being connected by the Geogadaegyo Bridge and Geoje Bridge. When he was born in 1927, no one could have even dreamt of such bridge. Interestingly, Kim Dae-jung, his political rival and colleague, was also born in Hauido Island, Sinan-gun. Kim Young-sam’s birthplace and memorial hall are located very close to Busan just across the Geogadaegyo Bridge.
At age 26, Kim was officially nominated as a member of the Liberal Party after running for his hometown, Geoje, in the third general election. This record as the youngest elected lawmaker still stands today. However, then-president Rhee Syngman’s so-called, “rounding- off” amendment was passed during his consecutive terms, and Mr. Kim broke away from his political party with his ten colleagues and became an initiator of the newly created Democratic Party in 1955. Kim Young-sam, who was only in his 20s, became one of 33 initiating members who were mostly tycoons.
In the fourth election of members to the National Assembly, Kim ran for the Seo-gu District in Busan, his almost 30-year local constituency, belonging to the Democratic Party, but he lost the election. After that, during the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination period, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, two giants in Korea’s political history, supported different candidates, challenging each other by destiny. Kim Young-sam ran again for the same constituency in the fifth election to the National Assembly after the April 19 Revolution and he was elected. His grand pen name “Geosan” was the combination of two words, “Geoje” and “Busan,” Previously, big lawmakers were referred to by their pen names, but since Kim Young-sam stood out at a young age, he used English initials YS instead of a pen name. This could be further proof of South Korea’s “modernization.”
According to Kim Jong-pil, who was then in charge of military administration works after the May 16, 1961 coup, Kim Jong-pil met Kim Young-sam in person and advised him to join the Republican Party, which was to be newly created, but Kim Young-sam refused his suggestion, saying, “If everyone is swept away by the military regime power, there will be no progress. We should have opposition power as well. In that sense, I will keep following the path I chose.”
After the military government extension was announced and after participating in an opposition demonstration, Kim Young-sam was caught and sent in Seodaemun Prison, which was a common path of the key figures in Korea’s modern history. After his release from prison, Kim Young-sam became a floor leader and spokesperson of the New Democratic Party after working for the Democratic Justice Party. During that period, he was attacked by a terrorist with acetic acid. Kim Young-sam later claimed that the incident was a terrorist act conducted by the Park Chung-hee Administration.
In 1971, he advocated the famous theory called “members in their 40s” (meaning that young politicians in their 40s should lead the nation), throwing himself into the presidential nomination. Mr. Kim gained the most votes in the first election. However, after failing to hold the majority of votes, he eventually lost the second election to Kim Dae-jung. While Kim Young-sam actively supported Kim Dae-jung in the seventh presidential election, he hoped to prepare for the next presidential election in 1975 as well, but the Revitalizing Reform (Yushin in Korean) occurred. This period is one of the darkest times in South Korea’s modern history, but in another sense, it was the period that made Kim Young-sam stronger.
He had to live in Seoul as he became a lawmaker and worked in the political field. The area where he chose to live was Sangdo-dong. In Korea’s modern history, Sangdo-dong became a proper noun representing political power and turning out the president along with Donggyo- dong, where the house of the former president, Kim Dae-jung, was located.
<”Thank you, neighbors of Sangdo-dong” by Kim Young-sam Memorial Library>
Kim Young-sam was elected as a governor of the New Democratic Party at the party convention in August 1974 and stood in the vanguard to antitheism struggles that continued for five years. During that period, since Kim Dae-jung was imprisoned or under house arrest most of the time, Kim Young-sam had to bear all of the burden, and later he resigned as governor due to the continued anticommunism atmosphere after the collapse of Saigon, Vietnam. Kim Young-sam returned as a governor of the New Democratic Party in May 1979, but the Yushin regime decided upon a provisional injunction of Kim’s duty as governor and expelled him from his position. As well known to the public, this eventually led to the Buma resistance and the assassination of President Park Chung Hee on October 26, 1979.
Kim Young-sam competed for the presidency against Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil in spring of 1980, but his efforts were frustrated by Chun Doo-hwan and the May 17 coup of the new army group. Kim Young-sam was put under house arrest by the new army group on the same day at 10:00 a.m., but on May 20, he held a press conference at his house in Sangdo- dong, denouncing the new army that executed expansion of the May 17 emergency martial. He gave a press conference statement that he would define the May 17 incident that expanded emergency martial ruling as a violence betraying the nation’s goal to recover democracy. The bloodshed caused by the oppressive ruling of the authorities drove the nation into catastrophe. Because of this announcement, his house arrest was extended. However, after Kim Dae-jung left for the U.S. in December 1982, the house in Sangdo-dong became a legend. Kim Young- sam learned calligraphy during this time and spent much of his time reading.
On May 18, 1983, with the third anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, Kim Young-sam started a hunger strike. A week later, he was moved to a hospital but continued the hunger strike for 23 days until June 9. On May 29, a close person of Chun Doo- hwan advised him to leave the nation by visiting the hospital, but Mr. Kim said that there was one way to send him abroad: they could deliver him after he was a corpse. After all this, the opposition personages started sympathizing for him and took part in the hunger strike. The strike became the decisive momentum that broke up the rule with an iron fist by the Fifth Republic and marked a new beginning of democracy. As a direct effect, the house arrest was lifted, and the June Democracy Movement in 1987 achieved victory. Obviously, during this time, Sangdo-dong was very meaningful.
In the meantime, both Kims’s division resulted in a failure of the presidential election in December. Furthermore, as the three parties merged in 1990, Kim Young-sam’s status as a leader of democracy faded greatly, but he won the presidential election in 1992 and defined his government as the “first civilian government.” He suggested a government index called “creating new Korea,” pursuing wide-ranging reforms. He received strong support from the public by implementing important reforms such eradicating Hanahoe, a private organization inside the military, and adopting the real-name financial transaction system, as well as political reforms such as the public disclosure of assets of high-level officials. In addition, Kim Young-sam held two former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, accountable for the December 12 incident and president’s slush fund by indicting and arresting them.
Unfortunately, as the government implemented reforms depending only on the decisions made by the president, problems continued to be exposed, leading to many accidents and corruption scandals including the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store and Kim’s son, Kim Hyeon-cheol’s involvement in state affairs. These situations resulted in a serious political crisis for Kim Young-sam. To make matters worse, the administration faced a foreign exchange crisis near the end of the term, which forced the government to accept the IMF management system. Under heavy criticism by the nation, Mr. Kim ended his term in February 1998. Since then, he established the Kim Young-sam Center for Democracy. Other than that, he lived quietly for 17 years, and in November 2015, he passed away in the hospital where he conducted his hunger strike. He went to his lasting home in the National Cemetery in Seoul where he now rests in peace.
< Kim Young-sam’s grave at the National Cemetery>
The Kim Young-sam Library is now located next to the house in Sangdo-dong. Its construction is almost complete, but it has not opened yet. The memorial library is planned to include a performance hall, an exhibition hall, and a space for reproducing the presidential office. Its opening would be joyful compared to the Kim Dae Jung Library in Donggyo-dong. Kim Young-sam made mistakes, but no one can deny his contribution to Korea’s democratization. On November 22, just for one day, I want to suggest we take some time to think about him and pray for the repose of his soul.