The Honorable President Frederick Kempe, His Excellencies Prime Minister Trudeau, President Keïta and President Kaboré, Her Majesty Queen Rania, the officials of the Atlantic Council who have prepared this event and distinguished guests who are adding something special to this evening,
It is my great privilege to stand here as an honoree of this meaningful award. I had a chance to meet Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau at the last G20 Summit to discuss bilateral cooperation and peace on the Korean Peninsula. I was especially impressed by his initiative in addressing the issues of gender equality and Syrian refugees.
I also congratulate Mr. Lang Lang, a world-renowned pianist and warm-hearted philanthropist supporting children, on receiving the honor. His music is truly a beautiful message of peace. I am all the more pleased to receive the award together with these two honorees.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, I want to dedicate this award to the people of the Republic of Korea who held out their candles on the freezing streets throughout last winter.
As you are well aware, the Korean people brought new hope to world democracy with their candlelight rallies. They rescued democracy that was in jeopardy in the most peaceful and admirable manner and helped launch a new Administration. I am the President born out of the ‘candlelight revolution.’
Just like in many newly independent countries following the Second World War, the modern history of the Republic of Korea has been punctuated by one period of hardship after another. Koreans, however, have prevailed over the history of tribulations that continued from the colonial period to national division, war, poverty and dictatorships. Finally, the country has succeeded in achieving democracy along with economic growth.
I believe that such globally acknowledged accomplishments of the Korean people are the reason I am receiving the Global Citizen Award today on their behalf.
I was born in the year the Korean War ended in a truce. It was when the vast majority of people suffered absolute poverty, and democracy felt like a distant dream. One foreign newspaper columnist wrote about the situation in Korea during that period, “expecting democracy to flower in Korea is like expecting a rose to bloom in a garbage can.”
Surprisingly, however, it did not take that long before the world witnessed the great potential of the Korean people.
Koreans hoisted high the flag of the democratization movement through the April 19 Revolution in 1960 and never succumbed to military dictatorial regimes that continued for a long time after that. Many of them threw themselves into protecting human rights and democracy. Countless people also devoted themselves to achieving economic growth dubbed ‘the Miracle on the Han River’. As such, the people of Korea moved forward little by little while tackling challenges of democracy and economic development head on.
In May 1980, a civil uprising occurred in the southern city of Gwangju in Korea. It was a watershed in the history of Korean democracy. Many lives were lost. Ordinary people risked everything to uphold most ordinary common sense. They acted nobly in the name of human dignity. Their mature citizenship was manifested in the courage and resolve they showed in the face of death. Citizens stood in lines to give blood for the wounded and prepared rice balls to share with whoever needed them.
This civil uprising was a very significant chapter in Korea’s democracy. The efforts made in the aftermath went beyond commemorating those who had lost their lives. The Korean people strived to expose concealed truths and ensure that the courage and resolution of Gwangju citizens would be clearly recorded in the history of democracy.
Another breakthrough for Korean democracy came through the June Struggle of 1987. The Korean people’s deep-rooted will for democracy was given form and expression on the plaza, which helped shift the course of history from dictatorial rule to democracy. The people took back their right to elect the president, and from there, democracy began to expand to all sectors of society.
Korea’s democracy, which progressed from the resistance of a few to the participation of a majority, proved to be a source of fortitude in the face of economic challenges. In the same way the Korean people overturned a seemingly unassailable dictatorship, they exhibited an incredible drive for economic development. The united strength they displayed in working to realize democracy was the same strength that brought the country back from the brink of default in the 1997 Asian financial crisis and helped it weather the global economic crisis caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, democratic progress in Korea is nearing the full realization of popular sovereignty. Through candlelight revolution and in accordance with constitutional procedures, the Korean people unseated a president who had betrayed their trust. The will of the people was fulfilled in the most peaceful and admirable of ways.
On their own strength, the Korean people reclaimed from dictatorial rule their right to directly elect the president. And on their own strength, they exercised their right to hold such a president accountable for wrongdoing through impeachment. The National Assembly and the judiciary provided legal and institutional support to uphold the will of the people.
The people of the Republic of Korea demonstrated to the citizens of the world the constitutional proposition that “all state authority shall emanate from the people.” They also made it clear to me—who became the President through their upholding that proposition—that a president is just one of the people. There are no words to describe how proud I am of this fact. I also feel a sense of self-esteem and responsibility.
The candlelight rallies were a mass civic action participated in by some 17 million people over several months, but we did not witness a single act of violence or arrest from the beginning to the end. The rallies went on like peaceful and civilized festivals. They showed that the power of peace, not violence, could change the world. I believe that the very citizens of the Republic of Korea, who have demonstrated the power of peace to the whole world and offered a glimpse of hope amid the global crisis of democracy, deserve to even receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
When I was a student, I took part in the pro-democracy movement and, later, I became a labor and human rights lawyer. I participated in the candlelight revolution and became the President, embracing the aspirations of the people that their President should uphold the spirit of the candlelight revolution.
As the President, I have shaken hands with numerous people. When they offer their hands first with much delight, I am overjoyed. But at the same time, my heart aches. When they hold my hands tight I feel their earnest desire for a fair and just nation and a peaceful Korean Peninsula.
I renew my commitment here at this honorable place today. Now the new Republic of Korea will move toward economic democracy and peace. The people of the Republic of Korea and I are in the process of making a new paradigm of economic democracy called ‘the people-centered economy’. I am confident that the Republic of Korea, having contributed a new chapter in the history of world democracy, is also capable of presenting a solution for low-growth and economic polarization, which is a global concern.
The award I receive today may also contain encouragement and support from peoples around the world for me to accomplish peace on the Korean Peninsula for the sake of world peace. As I explained the history of democracy and economic growth in the Republic of Korea today, I am confident that after realizing peace on the Korean Peninsula, there will be a time when we can talk about the history of peace achieved by the Republic of Korea.
I ask all of you here to give unsparing support to the Republic of Korea on its path to economic democracy and peace. Come join us on the path.
I thank you again for your warm welcome and friendship. I wish the Atlantic Council tremendous success and good health and fortune to all of you here today.
Thank you very much.