During a ceremony held on January 6, 2024 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of former President Kim Dae-jung, who led the country from 1998-2003, leading politicians from rival parties called for “unity and tolerance” to bring harmony into society deeply divided by “extremist politics”.
“Politics is now mired in confrontation, antagonism and division,” National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo, co-chair for the event, said in his congratulatory speech. “What former President Kim would have wanted from us was, of course, national unity,” he said.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who also serves as a co-chair, said the politics had partly instigated distrust and hatred, stressing that “national unity and solidarity” were the only way to overcome crises.
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said that as President Yoon Suk Yeol respects and remembers Kim’s legacy, his government will strive to “usher in an era of trust and integration.”
Rising political star Han Dong-hoon, the justice minister turned ruling party interim leader, said South Korea experienced harmony and empathy under Kim’s leadership at the height of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
Former President Moon Jae-in, Yoon’s predecessor, also attended Saturday’s event with his wife and former first lady, Kim Jung-sook.
Indeed, the 100th anniversary of Kim Dae-jung is a very good occasion to mention a very significant South Korean politician, whom the author puts in second place immediately after Park Chung-hee as the creator of the economic miracle. In other words, Park laid the foundations for the country’s economic well-being, and Kim made it the way we know it in terms of democratization and even the spread of the Internet as he personally advocated bringing the Internet to every home.
Before his presidency, Kim Dae-jung was a consistent non-systemic opposition leader opposing the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, and here the author wants to point out a very important point. Protest can be either hungry or well-fed. It is one thing if you know that you will not be beaten, and photos from the police van will bring you likes and subscribers. But it is a completely different thing if you go out to demonstrate in protest not knowing whether you will return home alive, but you are ready to die for a cause.
Kim Dae-jung found himself on the verge of life and death several times. In total, he spent 6 years in prison, was placed under house arrest 55 times and was banned from political activity for 16 years. Under the rule of Park Chung-hee, South Korean intelligence kidnapped him from Tokyo, after which the kidnappers rolled the country’s main dissident up in a carpet and intended to drown him in the Tsushima Strait. Only the actions of the quickly reacting CIA and a call from the American embassy to the Blue House saved Kim from death. Under the rule of Chun Doo-hwan, Kim was sentenced to death for inciting the Gwangju uprising, although he was already in prison at the time the uprising began, and, in fact, the uprising arose in protest against the arrest of Kim Dae-jung.
By the way, modern South Korea has a geopolitical situation that has become traditional for Korea precisely thanks to the popularity of Kim Dae-jung, with his home region of Jeolla becoming a stronghold of the conventionally progressive and relatively leftist opposition since the 70s.
But no less important is the fact that, unlike many South Korean politicians, for whom ideas are a convenient wrapper in the struggle for power, Kim Dae-jung really was a good Catholic and a strong promoter of non-violence and non-resistance, a supporter of democracy and a representative of the “non-systemic opposition”, unlike, say, Kim Young-sam, who became president after being nominated from the ruling party, uniting his party with the ruling one in exchange for administrative resources in the 1992 elections. Although Kim was constantly reproached for his “pro-North Korean position,” he managed to survive largely thanks to the protection of the United States.
Even after being sentenced to death, he urged his supporters not to take revenge for his execution: “… if I am executed on these charges, the political revenge of which I am a victim must not be repeated.” And it should be noted that upon coming to power, he became the first president who did not try to imprison his predecessors or political opponents.
A consistent supporter of globalization and European values, Kim Dae-jung left many works concerning the image of the future. Some of his works bring a smile, but Kim was certainly a supporter of democracy. And although some believe that he denied Asian values in favor of universal ones, in fact he rather stated that traditional Asian society also had roots of democratic ideas, and therefore there were no special Asian values that deny democracy.
Now let’s talk about Kim Dae-jung as president. In fact, he came to power in an emergency situation, when the 1997 crisis dealt a major blow to South Korean society and caused a split in the ruling party. However, even in such a situation, Kim Dae-jung won the elections by a narrow margin of one and a half percent, the smallest margin in Korean electoral history until Yoon Suk Yeol’s presidential victory. 40.3% of votes were in favor against 38.7% for the representative of the Conservatives.
This is important in terms of the politician’s willingness to fulfill his promises. When you know for sure that only 20% will vote for you and you will never be president, you can describe in detail a program for society’s transformation, which the electorate will happily support, but at the same time it will never be implemented. But you become president in a difficult period for the country and are faced with the need to do everything that you previously promised, and you actually do it.
Kim Dae-jung is somewhat reminiscent of Kim Jong Il as the leader of the country, whose achievement was not a serious breakthrough, but the return of the country to a conditionally normal state after the most difficult period. The financial crisis of 1997 forced the Republic of Korea to seek help from the International Monetary Fund, but a loan of $20 billion, which in fact saved the country from bankruptcy, hit hard not only the economic well-being of the majority of Koreans, but also national prestige. In addition, loans from the IMF and other organizations were provided on very painful conditions for the country, which included, in particular, the restructuring of the economic system.
Nevertheless, the “IMF era,” when Korea had to repay an astronomical amount of loans issued in exchange for a major reformatting of the economic model, ended ahead of schedule thanks to the energy of Kim, who showed himself to be a stern and decisive leader. Kim Dae-jung managed to lead a campaign to mobilize the nation, as a result of which the “IMF era” was overcome in record time. In 1999, economic growth was recorded at 10.7%, GNP per capita was $8,581, and foreign exchange reserves exceeded $70 billion. In 2000, the country generally reached the pre-crisis level of 1996.
In addition to general democratization, he campaigned against corruption and for the forced opening of society, including the forced restructuring of the management system of financial and industrial groups. As a result of the measures taken, the structure of the chaebols was changed, and “excess” assets were transferred to places where they could be used more efficiently, based on their market profile. The level of control over chaebols and the transparency and efficiency of the banking system have increased. 11 of the 30 largest chaebol corporations disappeared, and the five largest: Hyundai, Samson (Samsung), Daewoo, LG and SK were reorganized. These structural reforms were mainly aimed at increasing the transparency of enterprise management, eliminating mutual collateral for payments, improving the financing structure, establishing an audit service and strengthening the responsibility of shareholders and managers.
In addition, much has been achieved in the area of gender equality. Thus, the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Korea decided to amend civil legislation on October 28, 2003 and officially allow a woman to be the head of the family.
Moreover, it was under the rule of Kim Dae-jung that the North and South extended their hands to each other with the greatest degree of sincerity. In inter-Korean relations, Kim Dae-jung adhered to the so-called “sunshine policy” aimed at melting the ice of mistrust and achieving concessions through soft power: constructive dialogue was put at the forefront. It was assumed that gradual dialogue and the involvement of North Korea in bilateral relations, firstly, would make the regime more open, secondly, would give the North Korean masses a better understanding of the outside world, after which they themselves would want transformations and change their attitude towards the South, and thirdly, it was planned to slowly prepare the North for reunification, since pragmatists well understood how much it would cost, especially for a country that had just experienced a crisis. In fact, Kim Dae-jung was the first to openly say that reunification would not happen in the near future, and that the German option was not the most acceptable analogy. North Korea was no longer formally treated as part of the country “beyond the demarcation line.”
The culmination of his actions in this direction was the Pyongyang 2000 summit with the participation of Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae-jung and their signing of the Joint Declaration between the North and South. The rapprochement was, of course, a tough one, but the historic summit in Pyongyang played a very important role not in terms of hopes for reunification, buried by the December Plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2023, but as a breakthrough in the diplomatic and information blockade of the DPRK, along with the subsequent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pyongyang. Largely for this, the Nobel Committee announced on October 13, 2000 the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kim Dae-jung (after thirteen unsuccessful nominations in the past) “for his lifelong efforts in upholding democracy and human rights and for his contributions to easing tensions between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea”. Kim Jong Il did not receive such an award, because formally the award was given not for the summit, but for his long-term human rights activism, which Kim Dae-jung deserved.
Unfortunately, Kim Dae-jung did not succeed in passing the baton. His children served time in prison for attempting to trade influence and did not prove themselves as politicians. His successor, Roh Moo-hyun, largely discredited human rights and left-wing discourse, opening the door to that new generation of democratic politicians, thanks to whom I want to put the word “democratic” in the party’s name in quotation marks. But thanks to this, today both democrats and a sane part of conservatives praise the man who made an invaluable contribution to the democratization of the Republic of Korea.
Considering Kim Dae-jung to be the second most important president of the Republic of Korea after Park Chung-hee, the author pays tribute to him both for his consistency and honesty in politics, his successes in inter-Korean dialogue, and for overcoming the IMF era. By and large, he passed the test of his ability to resist the temptation of power without betraying his principles.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.