Saturday, August 22, 2009

requiem for a dreamer

Last month, when I had noted here and here former President Kim Daejung's potentially serious health problems, not only the K-blogs but the English-language media itself seemed to be ignoring the story. With former President Roh Moohyun having killed himself just two months earlier, maybe the death of a second head of state within such a short period of time was too much to think about.

But at eighty-four years of age (he was born in 1924), his health problems caught up with him. He died several days ago, his demise an unwelcome surprise when I arrived back at my place in Honolulu after a long flight from California.

I don't want to say that President Kim is a controversial figure, but I can at least state that he is a notable figure who accomplished much but whose faults, it must be acknowledged, have tainted his image. I think a lot of people will judge him based on his worst perceived traits instead of looking at the man as a whole. Recognizing my own shortcomings and realizing coldly that even those I most admire are flawed and imperfect, I choose the latter path.

Some will say "DJ" bought himself a Nobel Peace Prize with $500 million in bribe money to North Korea to get a prize-winning summit with Kim Jong-il. Some will say he perpetuated the regional politics that plagued South Korea for decades. Some will say he was just as corrupt as his predecessors (and successors). Some will say he was a political opportunist. Some will say he was anti-American, spitting at those who saved his life.

[above: A bruised and beaten Kim Daejung is interviewed after an abduction and attempted assassination by government operatives in 1973. Agents from KCIA, South Korea's notorious spy agency, kidnapped Kim from his Tokyo hotel room from which he was leading an exile movement. Five days later, he was dumped at the gate of his Seoul home and placed under house arrest, which is where he spoke with reporters.]

Yes, he was imperfect, and he may be some or all of those things. But he was also a person who believed in pushing South Korea forward toward democracy. No opportunist on this matter, he is a person who risked his own life to bring democracy to the ROK. Yes he was imprisoned and set to be executed by the despotic regimes he opposed. That right there earns him immense respect in my book.

[above: Running for president in 1987. Kim Daejung and Kim Youngsam, both opposition politicians who each thought they had the best chance of defeating President Chun Doohwan's hand-chosen successor, former General Roh Tae-woo, split the opposition vote and ensured Roh's victory. Kim Youngsam later joined a ruling coalition with Roh, which made him the favored ruling candidate for president in 1992, defeating Kim Daejung. It was the Kim Youngsam administration's bungling of the emerging economic crisis of 1997 that propelled Kim Daejung into the Blue House that year.]

In 1997 he finally won the presidency he had long coveted — in direct elections he had helped make possible — at about the worst possible moment in modern Korean history. And he was willing to scrap some of his notions of political economy in favor of the tough choices (and untested choices based on faith) that were necessary to bring Korea out of the chaos of the Asian economic meltdown.

A Roman Catholic, he seemed to truly believe in reconciliation, breaking bread with and forgiving those — among them former president Chun Doo-hwan and former prime minister Kim Jong-pil — who sought to have him killed years earlier (it was American presidents who intervened to save him).

[above: Kim Daejung and his wife stand next to out-going President Kim Youngsam at Kim Daejung's inauguration on February 25, 1998.]

When he became president, he decided that it was time to shift gears vis-à-vis North Korea. Some four decades of mutual hostility had not made North Korea less threatening, more democratic, or any friendlier, and he thought it was time to try killing with kindness. Reach out to the North, try to integrate them, get political and social change to come from economic integration. And so was born the "Sunshine Policy."

Critics of the Sunshine Policy complain that after ten years, Kim Jong-il's regime is still standing. They complain that Roh Moohyun kowtowed so much to Pyongyang that Seoul's back was broken. And while I've been a harsh critic of Roh Moohyun, it is not Kim Daejung's fault that RMH was all carrot and no stick; I don't think, had he been allowed a second term, that KDJ would have been the same toward North Korea as his successor was.

Meanwhile, Kim Daejung deserves credit for allowing in more North Korean refugees than all his predecessors combined, a feat which included his future-oriented decision to establish Hanawon, a facility designed to process and integrate the newly arrived North Korean refugees. Funny how his critics twist all this around.

[above: When Kim Daejung (right) met with Kim Jong-il (left), the prospect of inter-Korean reconciliation had him so excited and elated that the septuagenarian lifted the North Korean leader half a meter off the ground.]

It's no surprise that they also couch his winning of the Nobel Prize as if he won it solely for his unprecedented 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il (about which Halmoni — whose clergymen father and brothers were killed by the communists — said upon witnessing that embrace on the tarmac that he should be arrested when he returns to Seoul), when the Nobel Prize committee specifically stated that his democracy activism was the major factor:
for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular
Like Corazon Aquino in the Philippines (who may also have deserved a Nobel Prize), he was a major factor in the sweeping in of democratic reforms in East Asia during the 1980s. Lest one think that the "democracy and human rights" part was tacked on to provide cover for the summit being the real reason, let's not forget that just nine years earlier would-be Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi had won the Nobel Peace Prize "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights."

Indeed, his Nobel was a lifetime achievement award. And that's how I choose to recognize him. He was flawed; he was a politician, and an ambitious one at that. It almost seemed that running for president was a hobby of his and the only way to get him to stop would be to elect him already.

I regret that I never got the chance to meet him (if I had persisted, I might have succeeded). But I know that the South Korea I live in is a better place because of him, and for that I thank him.

金大中, requiescat in pace.

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