SOUTH KOREA'S GREATEST LEADER DIES
South Korea's most popular president died while I was in their country. Kim dae-Jung served as president from 1998-2003. One peace activist in South Korea told me Kim was a "stepping stone to democracy."
Kim was almost killed in August 1973, when he was kidnapped from a hotel in Tokyo by South Korean CIA agents in response to his criticism of then President Park's yushin program. Although Kim returned to Seoul alive, he was banned from politics and imprisoned in 1976 for having participated in the proclamation of an anti-government manifesto and sentenced for five years in prison, which was reduced to house arrest in 1978.
Kim was arrested again in 1980 and sentenced to death on charges of sedition and conspiracy in the wake of a popular uprising in Gwangju, his political stronghold. The sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison and later he was given exile to the United States. Kim temporarily settled in Boston and taught at Harvard University as a visiting professor to the Center for International Affairs, until he chose to return to his homeland in 1985.
His policy of positive engagement with North Korea has been termed the "June 15 joint statement". In 2000, he participated in the first of two North-South presidential summits with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, which later led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Kim actively called for restraint against the North Koreans after they detonated a nuclear weapon and defended the continued warming towards Pyongyang.
One South Korean academic wrote about the deceased former president, "Kim's life was like a flower that endures a harsh winter but blooms in the early summer, giving a sliver of hope to people deep in despair."
In addition to Kim's historic opening to North Korea, while in office he also implemented a law to guarantee minimum standards of living for the people of the nation.
The current president of Korea, Lee Myung-bak, is trying to roll back the social and foreign policy progress South Korea made during Kim dae-Jung's time in office. The progressive movement in South Korea is currently mobilizing at a vigorous pace to resist the right-wing policies of Lee Myung-bak. His presidential approval ratings have now plummeted to the mid-20% range. A member of Korean Veterans for Peace told me that the current President Lee "is the greatest liar in South Korean history."
On my last day in Seoul we drove past an area where huge numbers of people were lined up to participate in official mourning ceremonies for Kim. The Korean people have long suffered - first from the 35-year Japanese occupation of their country, then the deadly Korean War, forty-some years of US sponsored right-wing dictatorship in South Korea, and now the occupation of the Korean peninsula by the US military.
Kim dae-Jung gave all the people of Korea hope that reunification of the divided country was indeed possible.