Korea Loses Greatest Democrat

by Michael Breen, Korea Times Columnist, 19/08/2009


A number of obituaries have been written in the past week, by both Koreans and non-Koreans, about the late former president of Korea, Kim Dae Jung, and I chose to share this one as it provides an excellent but succinct  summary of his life and times:

"When the former president Kim Dae-jung died Tuesday, he left behind a country that is arguably, outside of Australia and New Zealand, the most democratic in Asia. That is his legacy.

The Koreans politically are noisy, fractious, rambunctious and discombobulated, but they are free and their country works. Kim stands out more than any other democratic figure of the past several decades for having argued that such chaos does not need the military boot or the Confucian cane to keep it under control.

Kim believed that the desire for democracy grows out of human nature and that, as a choice for national organization, it was sweeping through the world, culture by culture and region by region. In 1994, he wrote an article in the American Foreign Affairs magazine, refuting the notion of "Asian-style" democracy championed by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, in which he said, simply: "Culture is not necessarily our destiny. Democracy is."

A Catholic, he believed in forgiveness and reconciliation. As president, he pardoned two predecessors, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, sentenced for leading a military mutiny in 1979 and for their role in the 1980 brutalities against protestors in the city of Gwangju. He broke historic ground in 2000 with a first ever summit with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. When the two Koreas eventually achieve a democratic form of reconciliation, this moment will be seen as the starting point.

The former South Korean President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts and remains the country's only politician to have emerged as a truly international figure.

Kim Dae-jung was born on the small island of Hawi-do off the southwest coast. His official birthday was December 1925, but he was in fact two years older. (The most likely explanation for this change, made by his mother when he was around 19 or 20, was so he could avoid conscription into the Japanese army after graduation from high school during the Second World War).

Over the years, political opponents exploited the fact that he was the son of a concubine to spread doubt among the conservative voters. For this reason, Kim was never clear about his early family life. His mother, Jang Ro-do, was a young, childless widow who had chosen to strike out on her own after her first husband died rather than spend the rest of her life alone, as would have been expected. She took up with a married man, Kim Un-shik, the son of an oriental medicine practitioner and had three children in a not-uncommon arrangement as the concubine. Kim Dae-jung, her eldest son, grew up with his mother and siblings, less than a mile away from the house where his father lived with his other wife and children.

When he was seven, Kim started attending a privately-run village school and came top in the exams. This achievement elated his mother and won the approval of the most respected man in the village. "My father used to say, 'Look at this boy. He is going to be important,'" said Kim Chun-bae, the son of the teacher, in a 2001 interview.

Thus, the young Kim discovered, through study and achievement, his path to affirmation.

The family later moved to Mokpo and Kim went to the prestigious Mokpo Public Commercial School after coming top in the entrance exam. In 1940, when all Koreans were required to adopt Japanese names, he became Toyota Hiroshi. (Years later, newspapers criticized him when they discovered that on a trip to Tokyo, he had called his old teacher and said, "Sir, this is Toyota-san.")

Despite being a top student, he did not go to university, possibly because his father insisted that he get a job. His bitterness over this remained with him for a long time.

In his last year at school, like many young Korean intellectuals at that time, he had started studying banned Marxist texts. He joined an underground communist group, and his main activity seemed to be to surreptitiously paste anti-Japanese posters in the city. He married Cha Yong-ae, gave up his communist activities at the urging of his father-in-law, a businessman, and began working in the Mokpo Marine Transportation Co. With the departure of the Japanese from Korea at the end of the Second World War, he and other employees took over the company. In 1947, he bought a ship and started his own company. In that same year, he was arrested after a local detective, who did not like him, claimed he was a communist. A colleague took the policeman responsible for the case out drinking and paid a bribe to have him released.

He was on a business trip to Seoul when the North Koreans invaded the city at the start of the Korean War. He escaped back to Mokpo, but was then arrested and jailed by North Korean troops.

After the war, he was drawn to politics and ran unsuccessfully for election. He caught the attention of John Chang Myon, the Catholic politician who became prime minister in 1960 after President Syngman Rhee was toppled. After his wife died unexpectedly, leaving him to care for their two boys, Kim converted to Catholicism and took the name Thomas. He won his first election in 1961, but before he arrived to take his seat in the National Assembly in Seoul, General Park Chung-hee staged a military coup and closed the parliament.

He later married Lee Hee-ho, a Christian activist, and had another son. She was an enormous influence on him, helping shape the moral depth to his subsequent political suffering. He became the assemblyman for Mokpo and spokesman for John Chang's Democratic Party. In 1971, Park held a presidential election and opposition party elders decided that it was time to field a younger candidate. Kim Dae-jung was the surprise winner of a run-off vote, beating two other young politicians, Kim Young-sam and Lee Chul-seung.

During the campaign, his car was driven off the road by a truck in what he believes was an attempt on his life. His injuries left him with a permanent Charlie Chaplin-type waddle. Despite an enormous disadvantage as an opposition candidate running against an incumbent dictator, Kim Dae-jung only narrowly lost. This near-victory stunned Park and the ruling camp and Kim thereafter became a marked man.

On a trip to Japan in 1973, Kim was kidnapped by South Korean agents, and bundled aboard a boat. Blindfolded and trussed, he believed that he was going to be thrown overboard. At that moment, he had an experience of Christ, the inspiration of which remained with him all his life. An aircraft buzzed the boat and, without explanation, Kim was returned to Korea and dropped off outside his home. The American CIA, tipped off to the kidnapping, had intervened to save his life.

Until now, he had been buffeted by events, but after this, he deliberately fought the dictatorship, allowing himself to become its most high profile victim.

Overseas, "DJ," as he was affectionately known, became a symbol for Korean aspiration for democracy.

Ironically, though, he never achieved this status at home. Koreans always saw him as one of a number of opposition faction bosses. In his power base in southwest Korea, where he had almost king-like status, he used to win 90 percent of the votes in elections. But voters from the southeast and from Seoul did not support him and, in earlier days, easily bought into government claims that Kim was a leftist, even a communist.

These negative perceptions dampened popular concern outside of his home region even when he was sentenced to death on an absurd charge of sedition in connection with the outbreak of protests in Gwangju in 1980. The Americans stepped in again and granted the new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, a visit to Washington in return for sparing DJ's life. Kim led opposition forces with Kim Young-sam during the 1980s despite spending several years under house arrest.

Democracy finally came following massive street protests in 1987. But it would be another 10 years before he would reach the presidential Blue House. His election, in which he narrowly defeated the ruling party leader Lee Hoi-chang, was the first Korea's democratic change of government to opposition.

As president, Kim led the country's astonishing turnaround from the Asian financial crisis which had taken the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

But he soon fell victim to the over-expectation Koreans still have of their presidents. The country's democratic rulers are not able to pull off what nation-building dictators could, but so far no democratic president has articulated the limitations of power. In this regard, Kim's visionary declarations about future economic growth and reconciliation with North Korea raised expectations so high that, despite considerable achievements, his term in office is more immediately remembered for the arrest of aides and his sons on corruption charges. Among the cases was one involving the under-the-table payments to North Korea to secure the summit with Kim Jong-il.

All this was indeed a sad conclusion, but it is one that will recede with time and the greater achievements of promotion of democracy and inter-Korean reconciliation will remain."


This article appeared in the 19 August 2009 edition of the Korea Times.

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