A combative soul passesThe 15th president of the Republic of Korea, Kim Dae-jung, passed away on Tuesday. Kim Dae-jung was president for five years, from 1998 to 2003, but he was a politician for around 50 years. He was elected assemblyman five times and was a presidential candidate four times.
Unlike others previously in office, he did not leave politics after ending his term as president. He went back and forth through different political areas, from the problem of social conflict between South and North Korea to the recent “president Lee Myung-bak dictatorship administration” debate.
People felt as if he never left. But now, he is gone forever.
Putting his merits and demerits aside, Kim Dae-jung was a great man, towering over the recent history of North Asia. His life revolved around a carousel of protests, persecutions, failures, victories, reconciliations and conflicts. This is why the problems of Korean society, and the solutions to them, are found in his footsteps. It is now up to Korean society to calmly evaluate his merits and demerits and use his death to spur historical development.
Kim Dae-jung was a fighter, and he was persecuted for that. As soon as he was elected as a Lower House representative in 1961, he lost his position due to the coup d’etat instigated by Park Chung Hee. Kim Dae-jung immediately stood against Park’s developmental dictatorship and the strong military policy against North Korea. He opposed the Gyeongbu Expressway, connecting Seoul to Busan, and proclaimed that the local defense force should be abolished.
He became a presidential candidate representing the opposition in 1971 and rose as a leader of the democratization force. He was kidnapped by Korean intelligence in Japan and even spent time in prison. In 1980, he was sentenced to prison by the new military regime, providing some of the motivation behind the Gwangju Democratic Movement that year.
It cannot be said that the fight for democracy is superior to developmental dictatorship or industrialization in Korea’s modern history. The general evaluation is that the developmental dictatorship was a more realistic choice for economic development. However, Kim Dae-jung largely planted the meaning of “democratization” in Korean people through the force of his beliefs.
Kim Dae-jung sometimes lost and sometimes won. In 1987, at the start of Korea’s democracy, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam ended up allowing the new military regime of the fifth republic to succeed because they failed to unify as one candidate. They blew the chance for democracy. Kim Dae-jung had to live with half the responsibility.
In 1990, he fought against the three joint parties of Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil. He led the Jeolla provinces and progressive forces that had been forced into one corner of the land. He set up a local self-governing body system after a 13-day hunger strike and, in 1998, finally became president.
As soon as Kim Dae-jung came to power, he focused on reconciliation with North Korea, something he considered his vocation. He was the first South Korean president to meet with a North Korean leader, and the first Korean to win a Nobel Prize.
However, his methodology was not as mature as his sincerity. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent behind the curtains for the summit meeting, the “low-level federal system unification” agreement that was quite unclear, and the North Korean appeasement policy that followed are still sources of debate today.
“There will be no more wars on the Korean Peninsula,” he said, but North Korea is currently threatening South Korea with nuclear weapons. There are even suspicions that the hundreds of millions of dollars given to North Korea for a summit meeting were used for nuclear armament.
Kim Dae-jung achieved a historic task: the change of power between government and opposition parties and between the Southeast and Southwest regions of the country. He also worked hard to save the nation from the foreign exchange crisis in the late 1990s.
While the public was angered over the corruption convictions of his sons, he succeeded in reinventing the progressive administration. All in all, it was a smooth process. Therefore, he had a good opportunity to embrace the country. He had the qualifications and opportunities to recognize the historical significance of industrialization forces, to accept the Lee Myung-bak administration that adopted those ideas, and to make efforts for national unity as a former president.
However, in the last stages of his life, he went back to the combative style that helped him grow. He defined the current administration as a dictatorship and provoked the public into action. He must have had his own logic. Perhaps he was shaken by the fact that reconciliation between South and North Korea was in crisis and that the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who was a progressive, died in such shocking circumstances following a probe into his personal affairs.
However, he would have been missed much more if he had walked the road of a national elder, putting aside regions and political parties.
The Jeolla people ? who were saddened by his hardships and wildly enthusiastic about his speeches the progressives who considered Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun their two leaders, the general public who spent a long time with Kim Dae-jung, and those who opposed and were even angered by his way of thinking, his words and his actions are all watching him leave.
There are no perfect leaders in Korean modern history. Different leaders have different weights of achievements and they have all made mistakes.
A lot more time might be needed to fully assess Kim Dae-jung. Just as a great tree does not shake in the wind, we hope the great man’s soul will always be with the Korean people.