[Viewpoint] Defining Kim Dae-jung’s greatnessKim Dae-jung, former president of South Korea, world-class leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, passed away this week, bringing an end to a dramatic life. It would be good if those who could not trust him while he was alive now mourn his passing and respect him for having sacrificed his entire life for peace on the peninsula and reconciliation of the Koreans.
From as early as the late 1960s, Kim maintained that the former Soviet Union and China should recognize South Korea while the United States and Japan should recognize North Korea, and the two Koreas should join the United Nations separately. He was 20 years ahead of his time.
However, South Korea’s military dictatorship regimes, whose primary agenda was anti-communist, constantly labeled his ideology as communism, oppressed him, sent him into exile and threatened his life. In 1973, he was abducted in Tokyo by the military regime, managing to survive shortly before he was to be weighted down and thrown into the East Sea.
In 1980, he was sentenced to death because of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. He was saved with help from the United States.
Kim was a man of conscience and action, but those things alone did not make him a great leader. He forgave those who tried to kill him. Such a gesture was the true evidence of his greatness. Just as for Han Yong-un, a Buddhist reformer and poet, and Kim Gu, an independence movement activist, the key words that defined the late former president’s life were human rights, justice and the fight for democracy. His philosophy embraced communication that went beyond the dichotomy of friends versus enemies, and his ideas embraced peace. That is why Kim’s values are global. Along with Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Kim, as a non-Westerner, made contributions to mankind through his cosmopolitan spirit.
In 1997, as soon as he was elected the 15th president of South Korea, he took on the twin tasks of developing democracy and a market economy, during an economic crisis. Responding to his reform of jaebeol, financial reform and dialogue among labor, management and the government, the people voluntarily participated in a national campaign to collect gold to help restore the country’s economy.
He enhanced three basic workers’ rights and introduced a system to secure the minimum quality of living for all people. He mended the social security safety net and implemented productive welfare programs to help the underprivileged improve their lives.
Under the principles of transparency and responsibility, he removed privileges and discrimination in economic and social institutions and opened a new horizon for social welfare.
He established the national council for human rights to protect rights of minorities and made remarkable achievements in securing gender equality and expanding rights for workers, disabled people, the poor in urban areas and prisoners.
Kim saw to it that demonstration tactics that often employed Molotov cocktails and tear gas should be managed with minimal force. He eliminated relics of authoritarianism in a short period and made our country become one of the advanced countries in terms of human rights.
He tried to overcome the economic crisis through promoting the information technology revolution and building a society based on knowledge and information. This was a huge success. He led our country to become an Internet leader and his vision and success still serve as the driving force for our industry and civic society.
What made Kim’s life truly great was that he sacrificed himself for peace on the Korean Peninsula despite difficulties and oppression.
He did not spare his passion for reconciliation and cooperation just for Korean nationals. He dreamed of opening a new civilization in Manchuria, Siberia and Eurasia, through cooperation between the South and the North. When the South and the North are one day reunited, Kim will be respected as a great teacher of Koreans and a great leader with global vision.
Kim had a special view of history through which he looked at the world order with an Asian’s perspective. His view can be called global democracy or universal globalism. While he was against the West’s attempt to spread its hegemony across the globe, he tried to preserve the future of mankind with ideologies of Confucianism, which pursues coexistence; Buddhism, which respects life; and the multiple nonviolent and peaceful systems of India.
Kim interpreted the loyalty and filial duties of Confucianism in a unique way, expanding them to include loyalty to the people and a duty for a social welfare system. He presented us with a progressive democracy anchored in tradition.
Kim’s last message to us to become a people of conscience and action will remain in our hearts forever. The value of the former president, a great leader and intellectual from East Asia, will shine even brighter in the future.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
by Han Sang-jin