Obituary: Kim Dae-jung

Former South Korean president championed “sunshine policy” of engagement with North.

Kin Dae-jung
Kim Dae-jung received the Nobel peace prize in 2000 [GALLO/GETTY]

Kim Dae-jung, born December 3, 1925 was the former president of South Korea and the only Nobel peace laureate from Korea.

He has been called the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” for his long-standing opposition to authoritarian rule. Kim was president from 1998 to 2003.

A veteran politician who fought for years for democracy in South Korea, he finally won the presidency late into his career.

Kim was elected in 1997 after promising democratic reforms, and campaigning to curb corruption and the political power of the country’s industrial conglomerates, known as the chaebols.
Kim survived several attempts on his life during more than 40 years in politics, one of which left him with a permanent limp.

In 1980, a military court sentenced him to death on a charge of sedition but the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment and then reduced to 20 years in jail, during which he taught himself English.

He had long campaigned for the democratic cause and enjoyed the support of the country’s trade unionists and students.

Before he entered politics in 1954, Kim was a successful businessman, running his own shipping business.

Rural upbringing

He came from the Cholla region in the southwest of the country, near the city of Kwangju, an area which formed his power base in politics.

But his rural background was also seen by some as a handicap, as people from the region are often regarded as socially inferior.

Aware of this disadvantage, he entered into an electoral alliance before the 1997 election with the small conservative party, the United Liberal Democrats, based in the southeast of the country.

Due to his late entrance into the South Korean leadership, his advisers went to great lengths to make him look younger.

He was known to rely on face massages and make-up to look younger before television appearances.

During his presidency, he steered an emerging South Korean economy through the crisis of the late 90s to greater heights.

He solidified political reforms that made the Republic of Korea as one of the most vibrant and free democracies in Asia.

‘Sunshine policy’

After his electoral victory in 1997, Kim pledged that he would start talks with North Korea and initiate a policy of engagement, not aggression towards the North.

Kim Dae-jung, left and Kim Jong-il, held a summit in Pyongyang in 2000 [AP]

Known as the “sunshine policy”, it resulted in a historic reconciliation between North and South Korea.

Families divided since the Korean war were allowed to meet, tensions along the most heavily armed border in the world relaxed, and in 2000 a summit in Pyongyang was held.

That meeting with Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s reclusive leader, won Kim Dae-jung the Nobel peace prize.

But these advances did not last for very long, and today, the “sunshine policy” has in effect collapsed amid renewed tensions on the Korean peninsula and the North’s standoff with the South and the international community over its nuclear programme. 
The summit in the North Korean capital was also eventually exposed as a sham, with huge bribes paid for North Korean co-operation.

But even if Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” did not work completely, it opened many peoples’ eyes to the prospect of peace with the North.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies