It is indicative of the determination of Kim Dae-jung to play a key role in shaping his country that he ran for the presidency of South Korea on four occasions. In the first three he failed, but on the fourth attempt he was successful and his victory ushered in a new era of liberal politics for the country during which he won both admirers and enemies over his efforts to reach out to the North.
Kim packed many things into his political life. He was an MP, a dissident sentenced to death for his opposition to the ruling regime and a man who survived at least five assassination attempts. On one occasion he was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel by South Korean agents. Perhaps above all, however, he was a politician who believed that the two Koreas did not best exist in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. "The South and North have never been free from mutual fear and animosity over the past half-century – not even for a single day," he said after he had left office. "When we cooperate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity."
Driven by that belief, Kim was the pioneer of the South's "Sunshine Policy" that stressed the need for engagement and interaction rather than trying to isolate the North. The pursuit of this policy led him, in 2000, to undertake an historic meeting in Pyongyang where he met and shook the hand of the North's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il. He urged the two countries, which have technically never signed a ceasefire, to remember their "painful and tragic" past history.
The bold move brought Kim many plaudits and also secured him the Nobel Peace Prize. But his willingness to deal with the North did not please everyone. It later emerged that ahead of the 2000 meeting he had prepared the way with secret payments of aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars. These revelations damaged his reputation, but Kim always insisted it was a price worth paying.
Kim was born in 1924 into a family of middle-class farmers in the Jeolla district of Korea. He graduated top of his class from high school and after working as a clerk for a Japanese shipping company, he worked his way to the top of the firm, eventually buying out the owner. During the bitter war that raged on the peninsula between 1950 and 1953 Kim managed to avoid capture by the Communists and afterwards, with the government becoming increasingly authoritarian, he decided to enter politics and pitch himself as a dissident. In 1961, on what was the third attempt, he secured a seat in the National Assembly. But days later, Maj-Gen Park Chung-hee staged a military coup and dissolved parliament.
A decade later Kim made his first bid for the presidency, nearly defeating Park, who was forced to alter the constitution to guarantee his future rule. Several weeks after the election Kim was involved in a traffic accident that he always believed as an attempt on his life. The incident left him with a permanent limp and forced him to walk with a cane.
There was more to come. In 1973 South Korean agents broke into his Tokyo hotel room and dragged him to a ship from which, he claimed, they planned to dump him at sea. The plan was only aborted after the intervention of US officials, who sent a military helicopter to follow the vessel. His life having been spared, Kim was instead placed under house arrest and then imprisoned. He was only released in 1979 when Park was assassinated by the head of the secret service.
Even that did not bring calm. Weeks after Park's death power was again seized, this time by another military leader, Chun Doo-hwan. When residents in one of Kim's strongholds took to the streets to protest against the junta, more than 200 people were killed by the authorities and Kim was sentenced to death. Again the US intervened to save his life and Kim was instead jailed, later leaving for the US.
After a spell teaching, Kim returned to his country and in 1992 made another bid for the presidency, failing yet again. He then travelled to the UK, spending several years as a visiting scholar at Cambridge. While some might have believed his political ambitions were over, he once more returned to South Korea and contested the 1997 election. This time he won, and his inauguration three months later marked the first time in South Korea's history that the ruling party had peacefully transferred power to the opposition.
After he completed his five-year term in 2003, Kim was succeeded by fellow liberal Roh Moo-hyun, who sought to continue his policy of engagement with the North. However, Roh was defeated in late 2007 and a conservative backlash ensued, something that made Kim despair.
Kim is survived by his wife Rhee Hee-hoh, and three sons: Kim Hong-up, Kim Hong-il and Kim Hong-gul. His first wife, Cha Yong-ae, died in 1960.
Kim Dae-jung, politician: born Jeolla province, Korea 6 January 1924; President of South Korea 1998-2003; Nobel Peace Prize, 2000; married firstly Cha Yong-ae (died 1960, two sons), 1962 Rhee-Hee-hoh (one son); died 17 August 2009.
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