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Digital Archive International History Declassified

Biographies

Kim Dae-jung

James E. Hoare

A longtime opposition politician in the ROK, Kim became president in 1997 and won the Nobel Peace Prize through his sunshine policy.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

KIM DAE-JUNG (1924-2009). A longtime opposition politician in the Republic of Korea (ROK), Kim became president in 1997 at his fourth attempt. First elected to the National Assembly in 1960, he was from the start closely associated with the main opposition party. He narrowly lost the 1971 presidential election to the incumbent Park Chung Hee, and thereafter was Park’s determined opponent. In 1973, he disappeared in Tokyo and turned up in the ROK capital, Seoul. He maintained that he had been kidnapped on Park’s orders and saved by United States’ intervention. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) used this event as a reason for breaking off the talks between the two Koreas that had been ongoing since 1971.

Kim continued to oppose Park and suffered frequent arrests. Following Chun Doo-hwan’s coup in 1979, he was again imprisoned and eventually sentenced to death. Once more U.S. intervention saved him, and he was allowed to leave for “medical treatment” in the United States. On his return to the ROK in 1985, he again became active in opposition politics. He failed to win the presidential elections in 1987 and 1992, after which he briefly retired from politics. With the 1997 elections in mind, he aligned himself with Park Chung Hee’s former right-hand supporter (and relative) Kim Jong-pil.

Although Kim was a Roman Catholic, there were claims, sometimes spread by government officials, that he was a crypto-communist. As “proof’ of such claims, it was noted that the DPRK frequently included him in lists of those in the ROK with whom it was willing to have dealings. Such listings were probably linked to his role in opposition and to his long advocacy of a less negative approach to the DPRK than what prevailed under the successive military governments. Once elected president, Kim began to develop these ideas, but at first his energy was mainly focused on the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis. Only as the ROK began to recover from that was he able to expound what became known as the “Sunshine Policy.” The long-term aim of this was the reunification of the two Koreas at some distant date, but in the shorter term, Kim offered an assurance that there would be no attempt at forced absorption and that the ROK was willing to provide assistance in overcoming the DPRK’s economic problems. At the same time, he made it clear that the ROK would not tolerate attacks or interference in its affairs. To further these aims, he encouraged companies and organizations to engage with the DPRK.

The DPRK was at first wary of the proposals but gradually showed interest, while companies such as Hyundai began to tum Kim’s ideas into practical projects. The big breakthrough came in early 2000 when negotiations led to the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit. Although there were some in the ROK who were critical of Kim’s decision to go to Pyongyang, the apparent deference of then DPRK leader Kim Jong Il toward him and the agreements that followed the visit led to huge domestic and international successes for the ROK president. That year Kim received the Nobel Prize for Peace. North-South contacts expanded and the ROK also encouraged countries to establish diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The euphoria did not last. It was soon clear that the summit had only taken place because a lot of money had passed to the DPRK. While U.S. President Bill Clinton had broadly been in support of the “Sunshine Policy,” after 2001 the George W. Bush administration moved toward a more critical and confrontational approach. Kim also had to cope with damaging claims of corruption in his family, although there was no evidence of any wrong-doing on his part.

After he left office in 2003, he continued to support his successor Roh Moo-hyun over engagement, despite the continued domestic criticism and the problems over the DPRK nuclear program. He was highly critical of Roh’s successor Lee Myung-bak, who adopted a far more skeptical approach to the DPRK from 2008 and who largely ended engagement. By then Kim’s views counted little. Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide in May 2009 caused him distress, and his own death followed in August that year. The DPRK sent representatives to his funeral. He remains a highly controversial figure in ROK politics, though he is still seen positively in the DPRK.

All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher. (Historical Dictionary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by James E. Hoare, published by RLPG Books, appears by permission of the author and publisher).