[Letters] Kim’s enduring legacy
As a foreigner who has experienced both the Asian financial crisis and Korea’s post-military governments first hand, I am among the late former President Kim Dae-jung’s millions of admirers saddened by his death. Over the years, I have come to regard the nation’s first opposition president as a democratic trailblazer. In the wake of his passing, one can hardly resist the urge to reflect on the life and legacy of South Korea’s most inspiring dissident and democratic leader.
Kim certainly lived a life mixed with misfortunes and achievements. His profile as a politician and democratic reformer reads more like a story from the “Odyssey.” Born on the small island of Haui, his boyhood dream was to become a teacher. But fate had other plans for him. After graduating from high school, he started a small shipping business and eventually became a successful entrepreneur. However, after seeing the oppression of his fellow citizens and curtailment of civil liberties by a military dictatorship, he convinced himself that he could do more for his countrymen by becoming a politician.
After three unsuccessful bids, Kim finally won a seat in the National Assembly in 1961. However, the National Assembly was disbanded after Park Chung Hee’s military coup. So Kim’s career as a lawmaker lasted only four months.
Evidently, Kim not only came to terms with his political setback, he eventually became a prominent opposition leader; educating himself by reading long hours in the National Assembly library. Once Parliament was restored, Kim became an impassioned legislator, and a prominent anti-Park spokesman. The more the government tried to shut him up, the more people listened to him.
Then, in 1970, Kim launched his first campaign as a presidential candidate, and won 46 percent of the votes. This gave then President Park reason to consider Kim a serious threat to his government. Consequently, Kim was branded a Communist, and marked for death. While visiting Tokyo in 1973, Kim was kidnapped from his hotel, taken to sea on a boat, where his kidnappers told him he was about to become shark food. Thanks to U.S. diplomats who intervened, his life was spared. If I were to summarize President Kim’s autobiography, my synopsis of his life and legacy would read like this: “Kim has spent up to 40 years fighting dictators and military governments. He also languished six years in jail, another six under house arrest, and four years in exile.”
For some time, Kim Dae-jung was a partner in protest with former president Kim Young-sam. However, both men went their separate ways when Kim Young-sam joined with the ruling party in 1992. In 1980, Kim Dae-jung was falsely accused of masterminding the Gwangju uprising, and sentenced to death by the Chun Doo Hwan’s government.
Kim has also survived several assassination attempts, one of which left him with a life-long limp - a constant reminder of a narrow escape from certain death. Then in 1997, after three unsuccessful bids to become the president of his country, he finally won the nation’s top office at the age of 73. His election as “the country’s first opposition president” was a well-deserved honor for his tireless efforts as a democratic champion.
Nearly half his adult life was spent fighting for the principles of democracy and struggling to stay alive. But thanks to God’s faithfulness in strengthening him in his hour of need, Kim managed to endure all the oppression and persecution heaped upon him. So accordingly, he will be mourned, missed and remembered for many reasons.
His admirers will reminisce on his political achievements, and diplomatic initiatives that earned him the world’s most coveted trophy - the Nobel Prize. His detractors will criticize him for his overly-obliging attitude towards the Kim Jong-il regime in order to ensure a historic summit meeting. But the world at large will remember him as a political leader who risked life and limb for democratic principles, faced insurmountable odds, and secured an enduring legacy. May his soul find rest in the great beyond.
Carlton U. Forbes, English teacher at Kwang-hye Won Middle School.