Tuesday, 25 August 2009

At the road’s end: Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009), Korean ex-president and Nobel laureate

Kim Dae-jung, the former president of South Korea who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, died from a heart attack on 18 August, probably aged 85 (though there is some uncertainty about which year he was actually born). Kim was a driving force in his country’s transition from an authoritarian to a democratic state. He was jailed, exiled or put under house arrest on several occasions through these decades, something which led to his occasionally being referred to, perhaps a bit exaggerated, as “Asia’s Mandela”.
Kim Dae-jung was elected president in December 1997, by a margin of half a percent. As president he initiated the so-called “sunshine policy” which aimed at reconciliation, interaction and co-operation between the two Koreas and for a time led to a detente in the relations with North Korea. In June 2000 Kim paid an official visit to Pyongyang and six months later he came to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
His presidency was sadly clouded by corruption scandals which involved both advisors and sons of Kim. They were a huge embarrassment to a president who had made an election pledge that no member of his family would be involved in corruption. It was however clear that the president himself was not tainted by corruption, unlike his successor Roh Moo-hyun, who took over as president when Kim left office after completing his five-year term in 2003. Faced with allegations of corruption, Roh committed suicide in May this year by throwing himself from a cliff.
In the Guardian’s obituary John Gittings concludes about Kim Dae-jung: “His narrow power base in the southwest, and reliance on the Korean disease of faction-building, thwarted any real transformation of the political culture. Yet Kim’s story remains one of unusual persistence and bravery in the face of death, and he will be remembered as a moral hero of modern Korea”.


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