(3) Kim Dae-jung: Korea’s greatest democrat
By Michael Breen
In a 1994 article in the American Foreign Affairs magazine, Kim Dae-jung famously refuted the notion of “Asian-style” democracy championed by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, saying simply: “Culture is not necessarily our destiny. Democracy is.”
That belief characterized the career of Korea’s best known democratic politician. Kim believed that the desire for democracy grows out of human nature and that, as a choice for national organization, it would sweep through the world, culture by culture and region by region until everyone on the planet enjoyed its benefits.
A Catholic, Kim believed in forgiveness and reconciliation. When he became the third democratically elected president in 1998, 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.
In an effort to accelerate an eventual democratic reconciliation with North Korea, Kim broke historic ground in 2000 with a first-ever summit with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. For this breakthrough, and for his contribution to Korean democracy, Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When he died in 2009, he left behind a country that is arguably, outside of Australia and New Zealand, the most democratic in Asia.
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 World War II).
Over the years, political opponents exploited the fact that he was the son of a concubine to spread doubt among 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 a 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 Dae-jung started attending a privately run village school and came top in exams.
“My father used to say, ‘Look at this boy. He is going to be important,’” said Kim Chun-bae, the teacher’s son, in a 2001 interview.
This achievement elated his mother. Thus, the young Kim Dae-jung 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 out on 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 studied banned Marxist texts. He joined an underground communist group and surreptitiously pasted 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 took a job at the Mokpo Marine Transportation Co. With the departure of the Japanese from Korea at the end of the war, Kim 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 found the policeman responsible for the case and took him out drinking, and paid a bribe to have him released.
Kim was on a business trip to Seoul when the North Koreans invaded the city at the start of the Korean War. He made it home to Mokpo, but was then arrested and jailed by North Korean troops.
After the war, he became drawn to politics and ran unsuccessfully for office. He caught the attention of John Chang Myon, the Catholic politician who became prime minister in 1960. 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 target. “DJ,” as he was affectionately known, came to symbolize Korean aspiration for democracy to the international community.
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 royal status, he routinely won 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 he was a leftist, even a communist.
These negative perceptions dampened popular support 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. After a period of “exile” in the United States, Kim returned to Korea in 1985 and led opposition forces in a coalition with Kim Young-sam despite long periods 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 Korea’s first 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 have of their presidents. The country’s democratic rulers are not able to pull off what nation-building dictators can, 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 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.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.