[CULTURAL DIMENSION]A man deserving of our praiseKim Dae-jung's term as president ends before the next installment of this column appears, so it is time to say good-bye. I begin with a story from the fall of 1983. In those days, foreigners were still rare in Korea and people often approached them to initiate conversation. One afternoon, as I walked out of Chongno Bookstore (now defunct), a student and his girl friend struck up a conversation with me. They were pleasant and we decided to go to a coffee shop in the backstreets of Chongno 2-ga. We talked about many things, but as the conversation progressed, the student insisted that we go to Gyeongbok palace to enjoy the fall weather. After walking around the palace, we stopped for a rest in a quiet area where the student popped the question that he had wanted to ask all along: Have you ever heard of Kim Dae-jung? I said yes, adding that he was well known among Korea watchers in the United States. The student said that he liked Kim Dae-jung, but that it was dangerous to say his name in a crowded public place. Before changing the subject, he added that he hoped that Mr. Kim would become president of Korea one day.
That short, clandestine conversation with the student in Gyeongbok palace was my Kim Dae-jung moment. I realized that he had strong support and stirred passion for a better life among his followers. I was hardly convinced that he would become president one day, but I knew from that day on that Kim Dae-jung was a force, not just a politician.
Korea in 1983 was under the stern rule of Chun Doo Hwan. On the campuses, police would sit in the back of classrooms to squelch dissent. In the street, they would stop students to inspect their briefcases. The press was heavily censored, labor unions existed in name only, and no leaders at the time had been chosen in free and fair elections. The bleak political situation was offset to some degree by a booming economy and the hope that the Olympics in 1988 would mark Korea's debut as an "advanced country." Mr. Chun skillfully used the Olympics to frame dissent as dangerous to Korea's future prospects.
The Korea of 1983 is hardly recognizable in the Korea of 2003, but for that matter even the Korea of 1998 has faded into history. Five years ago, Kim Dae-jung inherited a collapsing economy and rocky relations with North Korea. His immediate challenge was to rescue the economy and return it to steady growth. By the end of his first year in office, the economy was on an upward trajectory again, setting the stage for the dramatic recovery in 1999 and 2000. Though the economy slowed in 2001, it recovered in 2002, despite the weak global economy. Mr. Kim leaves the economy in better shape than any of his predecessors did at the end of their terms.
Relations with North Korea remain under stress, but for different reasons than in 1998. For all the controversy surrounding the inter-Korean summit in June 2000, Kim Dae-jung succeeded in putting a South Korean policy initiative at the center of relations with North Korea, greatly increasing national self-confidence. The "sunshine policy" has led to the establishment of a range of communication channels with North Korea that may yet play a decisive role in finding a solution to the current nuclear crisis.
Writing a letter to his son Hong-gul as a man condemned to death in December 1980, Kim Dae-jung wrote, "I believe that sociology must be strongly mindful of the four prerequisite elements for human happiness: liberty, participation, morality and sufficient food." As a force in Korean politics for more than 30 years, Kim Dae-jung succeeded admirably in expanding human happiness in South Korea while laying the groundwork for doing the same in North Korea. Few leaders in Korean history have done so much good. Whatever our feelings about current events, we should applaud this great man as he leaves office next Tuesday.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser