From House Arrest to South Korea's Blue House

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I wore a bulletproof vest for the first time in my life when, in 1985, I was a member of a delegation of human rights observers asked to accompany then-dissident Kim Dae Jung on his return to Seoul, South Korea.

Mr. Kim had spent most of the previous half-decade in exile in the United States for his political opposition to the military dictatorships then in control of South Korea.

I admit that I felt a little self-conscious in my flak jacket. Other than Kim, his wife, Lee Hee Ho, and his bodyguards, I think I was the only one among the dozen or so observers to take the precaution. But as events unfolded, the flak jacket turned out to be a sensible idea.

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As our delegation got off the plane at Kimpo International Airport that day in February, a group of 50 plainclothes operatives of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency set upon our group, forcibly separating us from the Kims. While another group of nonuniformed police pushed us against walls or forced us to the ground, the Kims were whisked away to an elevator attached to the passenger exit ramp. They were placed under house arrest and subsequently guarded in their modest home in Seoul.

How fortunes have changed. Yesterday, Kim Dae Jung, long-suffering political dissident and opposition leader, was inaugurated as the democratically elected president of the Republic of Korea.

He assumes office as the first opposition leader chosen by the Korean people to lead their country. Kim takes up residence in the Blue House, (as the presidential residence is known), as a glowing example of dedication to human rights and humane governance.

I first met Kim during the early 1980s when he was an exile in the US. I quickly came to know him as a thoughtful political philosopher who believed that he could build a government in his homeland that would put a premium on freedom, free political discourse, and some measure of free-market capitalism. He nearly had been killed for such ideas.

However uncomfortable I felt in my bulletproof vest, my experience - and the experience of most of us - pales to that of Kim.

In 1980, after government forces massacred protesters in Cholla, his native province, Kim was arrested and tortured for his political beliefs. At one point, he was taken out to sea, shackled in chains, and almost drowned. But his executioners became nervous when airplanes (believed to be American) unaccountably arrived on the scene.

At another point, Kim was sentenced to hang but was spared after protests from his US supporters.

Kim is now the highest governmental executive in the country, with oversight not only of the economy but also of the political and physical lives of his former tormentors.

It is testament to Kim's commitment to government by humane principles that one of his first acts after he was elected president was to request pardons for former military strongmen and presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, convicted for their roles in political scandals.

How fitting, too, that Kim's election and his inauguration kick off 1998. In December, human rights activists around the world will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Spelling out freedoms, legal protections, and other guidelines that signatory nations have pledged to follow, the declaration is among the most influential instruments of international law of the last half century.

Kim faces severe economic and political difficulties in South Korea. The economic woes that he has inherited are daunting, to say the least. But I can think of no better person, with no better sense of what is right for the people of his country, to face them.

I will be even more pleased when the bulletproof vests can finally be shelved forever. For all of us.

* Burns H. Weston is the Bessie Dutton Murray Professor of Law and director of the International and Comparative Law Program at the University of Iowa.

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