Kim Dae-jung

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Kim Dae-jung

Kim Dae-jung (born 1925) worked for the restoration of democracy and human rights in South Korea following the last popular presidential election there, held in 1971. In spite of many threats on his life and a series of imprisonments, he continued to show resistance to political repression under the Fifth Republic.

Kim Dae-jung, a dissident politician in South Korea's Fifth Republic (created in 1980), represented the cause of restoring democracy and human rights in his country. Condemned by court to death for his alleged role in the Kwangju uprising, from May 18 to 27, 1980, Kim's life was subsequently spared. He was allowed to travel to the United States, where he spent slightly more than two years in exile. In February of 1985 he returned to South Korea to resume his political activity, with the help of American friends who accompanied him to Korea as part of the "Campaign To Assure A Safe Return for Kim Dae-Jung."

In the turmoil of South Korea's party politics, Kim Dae-jung represented a formidable dissident voice of political opposition to President Chun Doo Hwan's authoritarian government. Although not fully permitted to resume his political career, Kim Dae-jung headed the broad-based movement called the Consultative Committee for the Promotion of Democracy together with another opposition leader, Kim Young-sam. In the February 12, 1985, parliamentary election, the New Korea Democratic Party (which both Kims supported) emerged to become the first-ranking opposition party. Initially controlling 68 of 276 seats in the unicameral legislature, the party increased to 102 seats after the election with the help of subsequent defections.

An Economist Enters Politics

Kim Dae-jung was born on December 3, 1925, on an island off the southwestern coast of Korea. His father was a farmer on the island, but his family moved to Mokpo, the second largest city in the South Cholla province, where Kim helped run his family's small inn. From 1949 to 1953 he successfully managed a marine shipping firm and also published the daily newspaper The Mokpo Ilbo. With the onset of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, and the Communist North Korean takeover of the city, Kim was imprisoned by the Communists. Later he and his brother narrowly escaped a massacre by the retreating North Koreans.

Kim entered politics in 1954 and was elected to the unicameral National Assembly in 1961. He was re-elected in 1963, 1967, and 1971. He served as spokesperson and chairperson of the policy committee of the Minjung Party (1965-1967) and as executive committee member of the Democratic, Minjung, and New Democratic parties, respectively, through 1971. As legislator he served as a member of committees dealing with the economy and with defense.

The Critical Election of 1971

In 1971 Kim ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Park Chung Hee as a standard-bearer of the New Democratic Party. But Kim received 46 percent of the popular vote and emerged as a formidable challenger to the incumbent. Two years earlier he had spearheaded the unsuccessful parliamentary effort to stop Park from changing the constitution to allow himself a third term. The 1971 election was the last popular presidential election that had an effective opposition candidate.

Following the 1971 election Kim Dae-jung was subjected to numerous life-threatening trials and prosecutions. He almost lost his life in a suspicious automobile "accident" during the 1971 presidential campaign. In August of 1973, during a self-imposed exile and a stay in Japan following a trip to the United States, Kim was abducted from his Tokyo hotel by operatives of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). Kim said that he was twice threatened on board the ship that smuggled him back to Korea. This incident focused world attention on Kim's case.

Back in Korea Kim faced court action stemming from charges brought during the 1967 and 1971 elections. He was imprisoned for two years and subsequently placed under house arrest. On March 1, 1976, while still under house arrest, Kim joined 19 other dissidents to issue a call for the restoration of democracy. For this incidence Kim was imprisoned under a five-year sentence. He remained in prison until December of 1978, when he was again returned to house arrest. Kim was not released until December 8, 1979, following the assassination of President Park Chung Hee on October 26 of that same year.

During the post-Park era, now celebrated as the "spring of democracy," Kim Dae-jung was one of the three men named Kim who would campaign in what was expected to be a peaceful, direct, and fair election of the next president. The others were Kim Jong Pil, a former prime minister under Park, and Kim Young-sam, a prominent opposition leader. However, a May 17, 1980, military coup led by Lt. Chun Doo Hwan and the subsequent Kwangju uprising abruptly ended the spring of democracy and resulted in the arrest of Kim Dae-jung and many other democratic leaders. Kim was subsequently tried in a military court and sentenced to death on what the U.S. Department of State called "far-fetched" charges. Because of international pressures, Chun's government reduced the sentence—first to life in prison in January of 1981, and then to 20 years imprisonment in March of 1982. In December of 1982 Kim was sent to the United States "for medical treatment."

Kim became a symbol of resistance against political repression in Korea and a spokesman of the Korean people for the struggle for democracy and human rights. He was an internationally renowned figure as a result of the worldwide sympathy and support he was able to garner for his courageous political stand. In 1959 he led the National Coalition for the Protection of Civil Rights in Korea. In 1981 Kim received the Austrian Bruno Kreisky Award for Service in Human Rights, and in 1983 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Emory University. He received an honorary citizenship award from Memphis, Tennessee, and also from Nashville, Tennessee, respectively in 1966 and 1983.

Kim was a Catholic and married Lee Hee Ho, former executive secretary of the National Young Women's Christian Association of Korea. They had three sons. He attended Kunkook University, Korea University, and Kyunghui University, where he completed a two-year graduate program in economics in 1970. Between 1983 and 1984, while in exile in the United States, he was a fellow at the Center of International Affairs at Harvard University.

Kim returned to Korea in 1985, and ran in the presidential campaign in South Korea in 1987. The other candidates for the office of president were, Kim Young Sam, Roh Tae Woo, and Kim Jong Pil. A new Korean constitution was approved on October 27, 1987, allowing the populace to chose one of the four candidates as the country's new leader. Roh Tae Woo won the election with 37 percent of the vote. When Kim ran for president again in 1992, a spy scandal rocked his Party for Peace and Democracy. Kim announced he was leaving politics in 1993, but returned to the political scene only two years later and set about forming another party. In 1996 he was the South Korean opposition leader.

Further Reading

For accounts of Korea's political history, 1945-1983, see: Young Whan Kihl, Politics and Policies in Divided Korea: Regimes in Contest (1984). Kim's writings in Korean and Japanese include: Indignation Against Injustice (1967); "My Goals in the 1970s" (1970); Mass Participatory Economy (1971); My Struggle Against Dictatorship (1973); and "Korea's Goals in the 1980s" (1980). His Letters from Prison has been published in both Japanese and Korean. Also of interest are the writings of Park Chung Hee, who founded Korea's Third Republic, and Chun Doo Hwan, who founded Korea's Fifth Republic. See also, "South Korea: Kim's Game," in The Economist, October 31, 1987, vol. 305, no. 7522; "Easy Kim, Easy Go" in Time, February 22, 1988, vol. 131, no. 8; "Second Coming" in Far Eastern Economic Review, August 3, 1995, vol. 158, no. 31; and "Intelligence," Far Eastern Economic Review, August 15, 1996, vol. 159, no. 33. □