[Viewpoint] Remembering what sunshine feels like

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[Viewpoint] Remembering what sunshine feels like

When I came to Korea at the beginning of 2001, Kim Dae-jung was at the height of his international acclaim. The historic North-South summit just a few months earlier had brought him the Nobel Peace Prize, fitting recognition, it seemed, for a man who had the imagination to challenge Cold War paradigms and seek a peaceful way forward.

At that time, the world outside Korea regarded Mr. Kim, as last week’s obituaries extolled him, as a figure of world significance, the peacemaking peer of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel.

How surprising, then, to learn that many, perhaps most, Koreans had little use for Mr. Kim. His opinion-poll standing was dismal. Newspapers lacerated him day in and day out.

The economy was growing too slowly; money scandals burgeoned; the “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea was a bust; too many of Mr. Kim’s political appointees were from his own native South Jeolla province. “The people have been driven into confusion,” the editorial writers scolded. “President Kim should call a meeting and devise better policies.”

This last suggestion - that Mr. Kim should call a meeting - really tickled American journalists in Seoul. Most of us had written editorials now and then in our professional lifetimes, and a strict rule in journalism was that criticism should be constructive, proposing and evaluating policy alternatives that might correct or alleviate the government’s shortcomings.

We were never allowed to tell the U.S. president, “You are a miserable failure, and I hereby judge you. Now it is up to you to improve. But I make no suggestions, because I am no expert.”

I met Mr. Kim and shook his hand just once, in the Blue House with a large group of foreign journalists. I was impressed with his glossy black hair - but then every Korean man over the age of 45 has glossy black hair - and with his command of detail as he answered questions in the group interview.

The president was careful to produce no news, so the interview was boring. But there was no mistaking that at age 76, he retained a steel-trap mind.

Eventually, we all learned some sad things about Mr. Kim and his presidency. His sons’ inexplicable prosperity led to convictions and jail terms. The Nobel-winning summit had been secured by shipping half a billion dollars or so to North Korea.

And as the Sunshine Policy - rechristened the “peace and prosperity policy” - continued under Mr. Kim’s presidential successor Roh Moo-hyun, we began to learn that in international relations, as in so many fields of human activity, it takes two to tango. The North Koreans were happy to pocket monetary and political gains, but had little interest in true inter-Korean reconciliation.

None of these disappointments vitiated, for me, the genius of Kim Dae-jung’s presidency. If the June 2000 summit had led to Korean rapprochement, half a billion dollars to get Kim Jong-il into the same room would have been money well spent. Did anyone really suppose that a continuation of the half-century policy of implacable enmity would have been more productive?

But increasingly in recent years, Mr. Kim was seen as a poignant figure from yesteryear, remembered as much for the succession of corruption scandals and for entrenching regional divisions in the Korean political landscape as for his failure to melt the Northern ice with sunshine.

Now, in death, the sun shines again upon Mr. Kim and his policies. He was honored with a state funeral - can anyone imagine former presidents Chun Doo Hwan or Roh Tae-woo receiving such accolades?

North Korea’s Kim Jong-il sent a delegation to the funeral and a condolence letter to Mr. Kim’s family extolling “the feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for national unification” - just as if reconciliation and unification were already facts instead of goals that now look more distant then they did during Mr. Kim’s presidency.

There are even gestures from the North that are being described as conciliatory - the release of two American journalists, discussions of new family reunions. Perhaps clouds will give way to sunshine on the Korean peninsula after all.

I wouldn’t count on it. For one thing, with Kim Jong-il still obviously shrunken from last year’s reported stroke, Pyongyang is widely viewed as entering a leadership transition. That was the explanation often given for its recent intransigence - that all the players in the succession melodrama must prove their toughness.

But transitions can also play the opposite way. Josef Stalin’s death was followed by a softening in the Soviet Union that led to the armistice that ended the Korean War. The Kremlin leaders had to take care of their internal politics and sought to avoid external confrontations.

It is pleasant that Mr. Kim’s departure is accompanied by strings of hope for his vision of a Korean future as a whole and free people.

It would be a shame if we are only to witness one more failure in the sad history of divided Korea.


*The writer is a columnnist

by Harold Piper

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