Reflecting on “Giants”

Todd Crowell reports that Kim Dae Jung is seriously ill and reflects on his life and career as a “Giant of [Asian] Democracy”

For Kim achieving the presidency was the culmination of a lifelong struggle. After two unsuccessful attempts, he won his first seat in parliament in 1961, only to find the National Assembly building surrounded by tanks in the military coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power three days later. In 1971 he made the first of four bids for president — running against Park himself.

He engendered Park’s undying enmity by winning as much as 46 per cent of the vote. In that first presidential campaign he was hit by a car, perhaps deliberately, and suffered an injury that made him walk with a shuffle for the rest of his life.

In 1973 he was abducted by agents of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) in Japan and brought back to South Korea forcefully. His political rights were restored shortly only after Park’s assassination in 1979. A year later Kim was accused of treason after students and residents of the southwestern city of Kwangju rose in a bloody insurrection.

In all, Kim spent five years in prison, seven under house arrests and two years in exile in the United States. Returning to Korea in 1985, he and his supporters had Aquino’s assassination two years previously strongly in mind. A couple of U.S. congressmen accompanied him to discourage any “copy cat” killings.

In the 1997 election Kim Dae Jung proved he was not only courageous but could also be shrewd, practical, even ruthless when he had to be. His comeback, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power from a ruling to an opposition party in South Korea’s history, was a masterpiece of political manipulation.

He made an alliance of convenience with the conservative Kim Jong Pil, the very man who had masterminded the coup that prevented him from taking his assembly seat more than 30 years before and the founder of the KCIA, the agency that had tried to kidnap him.

He leaked allegations that the sons of his main opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, had avoided military service. These revelations, damaging enough to Lee, encouraged the ambitious mayor of Inchon, Rhee In Je, to enter the race, thus splitting the conservative vote and allowing Kim to squeak into power with about 40 percent of the vote.

As president, Kim Dae Jung showed toughness in getting his way with the legislature and Korea’s large business conglomerates, but he also steadfastly held to his vision of reconciliation with North Korea, known as his “sunshine policy.” He was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Peace for his summit meeting with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000.

Some of the luster went off of that achievement when it was later revealed that he had arranged with several large business conglomerates to bribe the North with about $500 million in cash to hold the meeting in Pyongyang. There was personal sadness two when his two sons were accused of corruption.

These days the sun does not shine so brightly on the sunshine policy. A cold wind continues to blow from Pyongyang. The election of conservative Lee Myung Bak as president (another peaceful change of power) reflected growing disillusion in South Korea. Still elements, such as the Kaesong industrial zone across the Demilitarized Zone, remain in place.

I would emphasize something of that last paragraph: the second peaceful transition of power marks a significant step in the creation of a procedurally sound democracy and should be considered a triumph rather than merely a defeat. And the short-term failure of the “Sunshine policy” — and the need to bribe the North Koreans — I’ve always felt that more bribery, rather than less (see also) would produce better results, and I think Kim Dae Jung’s reputation will continue to rise rather than fall as things progress.


  1. H”is comeback, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power from a ruling to an opposition party in South Korea’s history, was a masterpiece of political manipulation.”

    Wasn’t Kim Young Sam in the oppositnon party?

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