Kim Dae-jung mourned as Korea peacemaker

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Kim Dae-jung, the first South Korean president to meet with North Korea's leaders, is being mourned as a peacemaker. Kim died Aug. 18 at the age of 85.

“I was saddened at the passing of former president Kim Dae-Jung of the Republic of Korea [the name by which South Korea is officially recognized],” President Barack Obama said in a statement, going on to call Kim “a courageous champion of democracy and human rights.”

“President Kim risked his life to build and lead a political movement that played a crucial role in establishing a dynamic democratic system in the Republic of Korea,” Obama said.

It was Kim who introduced a policy of rapprochement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Consequently, while most of South Korea’s presidents, including the current extremist right Lee Myung-bak, have drawn the ire of the DPRK, the North Koreans expressed sorrow at Kim’s death.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sent a message to Kim Dae-jung’s family. “Upon hearing the sad news that ex-President Kim Dae Jung passed away,” he wrote, “I express my deep condolences to Mrs. Ri Hui Ho and other bereaved family members.”

“Though he passed away to our regret,” the North Korean leader added, “the feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation.”

The sympathy in the North runs so high that the DPRK leadership, despite the current heightened North-South tension, is sending a delegation to Seoul to pay tribute to Kim. The group will be led by Kim Ki Nam, a leader of the Workers Party of Korea. (Kim is one of the most common family names in both North and South Korea.)

The Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh called the delegation Kim Dae-jung's 'final gift.' The paper continued, 'Many are hoping the delegation’s visit to honor the passing of Kim, who dedicated his entire life to overcoming national division and working to establish peace and unification' may “lay the basis for strengthening relations between the states.'

Kim’s life paralleled progressive politics in South Korea: He went from being a prisoner of the infamous Park Chung-hee dictatorship to becoming the first-ever opposition leader elected to the South Korean presidency. He was president from 1998 to 2003. After he left office, he continued to push forward with the fight for democracy and peaceful reunification.

The former president’s most notable achievement, which also won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, was the Sunshine Policy, in effect from 1998 through 2008, when it was scrapped by the Lee administration. According to this policy, the South would not seek to absorb or overthrow the North, as had been the policy for decades before, but would instead actively seek cooperation.

The result of Kim’s policy was the emotional reunification of families that had been divided since the end of the Korean War. Also, North-South economic cooperation was begun and, in 2000, Kim went to North Korea and met with his northern counterpart, becoming the first South Korean president ever to do so.

As an opposition leader, he was twice a target for assassination. The dictatorship first tried to kill Kim in a way that would look like an automobile accident. Then, in 1973, Kim was kidnapped by government agents from his hotel room and brought to a ship where he was to be thrown overboard. Kim escaped each time.

He was then banned from politics, and, in 1976, was thrown in jail.

After Park was assassinated in 1979, Kim was freed and returned to political life. However, when the military seized power yet again, he was charged with sedition due to his association with democratic elements and spent years in exile.

Kim continued his fight for greater democracy in the South and more friendship with the North. He characterized the current Lee administration as “a tide turning back South Korea to the way it was a decade ago.” He warned of three main problems of Korea: Poor relations between the North and South, the effects of the financial crisis on workers, and assaults on democracy by Lee and his ruling Grand National Party.

In November 2008, he urged progressive forces to unite. “If the Democratic Labor Party, Democratic Party and civic and social groups join hands firmly and form a broad-ranging union for democracy to fight the regression,” he said, “success is assured.”

On January 1, 2009, he referred to the Lee administration as “the people who took the side of dictators ... I had thought that democracy, which so many people risked their lives fighting to attain for 50 years, was on solid ground after ... But for the past year, democracy has been facing a major challenge, and it is going back to where it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Kim’s spirit was summed up by his former chief of staff Park Jie-won, who was quoted by The Hankyoreh, Korea’s largest liberal newspaper, as saying that Kim “often said that if he keeps quiet, he could just be respected and not hear anything, but as someone who fought for half a century for democratization, he could not just let these issues pass.”

dmargolis @ cpusa.org