Weekly Insights and Analysis

Reflections on the Life of Kim Dae-jung

August 19, 2009

By Edward Reed

It seems to me that there are two names that have indelibly influenced modern Korean history and the amazing accomplishments that the Korean people have achieved. One is Park Chung-hee, who force-marched Koreans down the road of economic growth, laying the foundations for the prosperity that we see today. The other is Kim Dae-jung, who passed away Tuesday, a towering icon of his country’s strides in democracy, human rights and inter-Korean reconciliation. I had the privilege to be living in Korea to witness, first, the collision of the two when it appeared that Park had won the day, and in more recent years, the flowering of a robust political culture deeply influenced by the ideals that Kim fought for all his life.

I was a 23-year-old Peace Corps English teacher in 1971, when some of my students took me to a presidential campaign rally for the young, fiery upstart who was challenging strongman (as the U.S. media usually labeled him) Park Chung-hee. I joined a crowd of tens of thousands at Changchung Park in central Seoul and felt the excitement that Kim Dae-jung was generating among the Korean youth and supporters of all ages of Korean democratization. It reminded me of the rallies for Bobby Kennedy that I had joined as a young college student in Indiana during Kennedy’s electrifying 1968 campaign that ended in his assassination. Kim, like Kennedy, not only stirred people’s emotions, but also offered them an inspiring vision and alternative to the prevailing paradigm. After 10 years of Park’s rule, Kim emerged as the first opposition leader to offer the Koreans an alternative to Park’s formula of economic growth first and democracy second – or third. Kim asserted that human rights and democracy need not and should not be sacrificed to rapid economic growth, and that economic development was possible without creating huge gulfs between rich and poor. His strong showing in that election was, no doubt, a factor in Park’s move to suspend even the pretense of elections the following year, forcing Kim and other leaders to flee or face imprisonment.

Kim survived to pursue a political career that spans Korea’s modern history. He came back again and again to offer Koreans his alternative vision. In and out of prison he became the symbol and inspiration for the democracy movement that resulted in achieving the more balanced approach that Korea is now admired for. And when he was finally elected president in 1997, he took bold risks to implement his vision, not only of a more democratic South Korea, but also of an entirely different approach to the South-North division. His Sunshine Policy created the new environment within which South Korean and international NGOs, including The Asia Foundation, could open channels for positive engagement with the North on humanitarian projects. Kim Dae-jung, himself, personally encouraged the Foundation’s dialogue and exchange programs.

 The Asia Foundation and Doug Bereuter host former Republic of Korea President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung in San Francisco, April 25, 2005.

Asia Foundation President Doug Bereuter welcomes former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung to San Francisco on April 25, 2005. (Photo by Jakub Mosur/The Asia Foundation)

Kim Dae-jung, who eventually became his country’s leader and the first of his nation to be awarded the Nobel Prize for peace, remained controversial even at the height of his political career due to his consistent and unbending devotion to his vision of Korea’s future. It is up to Koreans to judge his place in their history, to assess his accomplishments and failings, but there is no doubt that he represents Korean’s determination to play a full and active role in their own political and economic development, and to be the masters of their own destiny. For the same reason Kim will continue to be a spiritual force in Korea into the future.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea. He can be reached at

Related locations: Korea


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