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Kim Dae Jung, Former South Korean President, Dies Aged 85

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2009. 8. 21.

Kim Dae-jung, former South Korean president, dies aged 85

Nobel peace prizewinner and architect of 'sunshine policy' with North dies in Seoul hospital


Julian Borger on the life of Kim Dae-jung 



Kim Dae-jung, who survived assassination attempts as a pro-democracy activist to become South Korean president and a Nobel laureate who thawed relations with the North, has died aged 85.


Hospital officials in Seoul said he died today from respiratory distress, a pulmonary embolism and multiple organ failure, after being admitted with pneumonia last month. His wife, three sons and former aides were at his side.


Kim survived a death sentence in his years as a political and human rights activist, enduring imprisonment and exile as he challenged military dictatorship and helped to steer South Korea's course from authoritarian rule to democracy. His election as president in 1997 was the first time power had shifted from a ruling party president to an opposition leader.


He was best known on the world stage for his "sunshine policy" of engaging North Korea, which led to an unprecedented rapprochement culminating in the first summit between the two states and his iconic handshake and embrace with his counterpart, Kim Jong-il in 2000. Later that year he was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts, becoming South Korea's only such laureate.


The Nobel committee cited his "great moral strength … as a leading defender of universal human rights against attempts to limit the relevance of those rights in Asia".


As ties deteriorated after last year's inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak – who made aid conditional on Pyongyang's commitment to disarmament – Kim continued to call for closer co-operation.


This year he urged Koreans throughout the peninsula to be mindful of their "painful and tragic" history and work together to establish peace and security.


"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. "When we co-operate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity."


This week, North Korea said it would remove border restrictions to allow tours by South Koreans and family reunions – a conciliatory gesture after months of rising tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests and its withdrawal from aid-for-disarmament talks.


Kim survived several suspected assassination attempts, including a dramatic 1973 abduction at a Tokyo hotel, allegedly by South Korean agents.


He was born to a middle-class farming family in south-west Korea, while the country was still under Japanese occupation, and began his career in business. After the peninsula was divided and South Korea's fledgling government veered towards authoritarianism, he became involved in politics. He won a seat in the National Assembly in 1961.


A decade later, he ran for the presidency and nearly defeated the strongman president Park Chung-hee, prompting Park to alter the constitution to guarantee his future rule. Weeks later, a truck rammed his car off the road in what Kim believed was an attempt to kill him. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp and sometimes used a cane.


His death follows that of his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, who stunned South Korea by killing himself this spring after becoming mired in a corruption scandal.



President Kim Dae-jung was born on December 3, 1925 in a small village on an island of South Korea's southwestern coast. He graduated from a commercial high school in 1943.


When the Syngman Rhee Administration (1948-1960) began to become increasingly dictatorial, he decided to enter politics. His political career proved to be rather turbulent from the start. He was elected to the National Assembly in a bi-election in 1961 after two unsuccessful bids, but, within three days of his election, the National Assembly was dissolved following a military coup d'etat led by Major General Park Chung Hee.


When he was elected again to the National Assembly in 1963, he began to emerge as a junior leader within his own party. He served as the spokesman for the Democratic Party in 1965 and became the chairman of the party's Policy Planning Committee the following year.


As President Park Chung Hee sought constitutional revisions in 1969 to allow himself to run for a third term, Kim Dae-jung gave an address against the scheme in an outdoor rally, and he was widely acclaimed for his vision and courage. He was chosen the presidential candidate of the New Democratic Party in 1971, running against the all-powerful incumbent, Park Chung Hee. Despite the obstructionist tactics and illegal electioneering practices of the ruling party, he garnered over 46 per cent of the votes cast.


During the Assembly election campaign that soon followed the presidential vote, opposition leader Kim experienced what was to be the first of at least five attempts on his life by his political foes. A heavy-load truck rammed into his car, seriously injuring him and his two aides. President Kim still suffers from the leg injury.


Barely a year after the election, President Park imposed martial law, banned all political activities and rammed the so-called Yushin (revitalizing reform) Constitution through the National Assembly. It gave the president power for life. Kim Dae-jung strenuously objected to these extra-legal measures and led campaigns against Park's regime in the U.S. and Japan. In August 1973, agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency abducted Kim from a Tokyo hotel. The plot was to "eliminate" him but swift and strong reactions from the U.S. and Japan resulted in his release in Seoul a week later. He was immediately placed under house arrest.


On March 1, 1976, the indomitable opposition leader joined other democracy fighters in issuing the "Independence Day Declaration for Democratization," which touched off yet another wave of pro-democracy demonstrations in Korea. Subsequently, he was sentenced to five years in prison. He remained in jail until the authorities released him and put him under house arrest in 1978.


Soon after President Park was assassinated by one of his close aides in October 1979, Kim had his civil and political rights restored.


After a few months of political unrest another group of soldiers seized power and Kim Dae-jung was thrown into prison, again, in May 1980 on charges of treason. In November of that year, a military court sentenced him to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and then to a 20-year term. In December 1982, his prison term was suspended, and he was allowed to travel to the United States.


Kim ended his exile in the U.S. and returned home in early 1985 despite his supporters' warnings that he might meet the same tragic fate as Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino. Back in Seoul, he was immediately put under house arrest but his return intensified the nationwide pro-democracy movement. In June 1987, Kim was cleared of all outstanding charges and his civil and political rights were fully restored. He ran and was defeated in presidential elections in 1987 and 1992.


In December 1997, he was elected to the presidency, winning 40.3 per cent of the votes. When he was inaugurated as the eighth President of the Republic of Korea, it marked the first transition of power from the ruling to the opposition party in Korea's modern history.


Taking over the government in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis, President Kim devoted himself to the task of economic recovery and managed to pull the country back from the brink of bankruptcy. Reforms and restructuring that began early in his Administration still continue.


President Kim Dae-jung's vision for the Korean people led him to pursue a policy of engagement toward North Korea. He and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il worked together on a joint declaration they signed on June 15, 2000 paving the way for a brighter future for all Koreans and other peace-loving peoples of the world.


From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2000, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 2001

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.


Kim Dae-jung died on 18 August, 2009.