Kim's breakthrough with North wins Koreas' first Nobel

South Koreans get a boost when their president is recognized for defrosting cold-war-era hostilities with their Stalinist brethren.

The entranceway of the Kyobo Bookstore in downtown Seoul is lined with the portraits of Nobel Prize winners - a way to encourage young readers to aim high. But for years, one spot remained empty. A small note explained that it would be filled by the first Korean to win a Nobel Prize.

Millions of South Koreans - gathered around TVs in train stations, shops, and offices Friday evening - celebrated as President Kim Dae Jung was awarded for his long fight for democracy, human rights, and peace. "His visit to North Korea gave impetus to a process which has reduced tension between the two countries," read the Nobel citation. "There may now be hope that the Cold War will also come to an end in Korea."

The prize is an endorsement of Mr. Kim's policy of engagement with North Korea - and a boost to national esteem.

"I'm very proud. He's the very first Korean hero in modern times," says Seo Su, a student. She admires Kim's determination to stand by his convictions. "Even though people opposed him, he did things his own way."

TV networks have flooded the airwaves with Kim biographies. After growing up in a small port town, and stints at a newspaper and a shipping company, Kim's entry into politics began with his election to the National Assembly shortly before Gen. Park Chung Hee seized power in a 1961 coup.

Kim fought successive military dictatorships that threw him in prison, exiled him, put him under house arrest, sentenced him to death, and attempted to assassinate him. Several times, the United States government intervened to help save his life.

After a popular uprising successfully toppled the dictatorship in 1987, Kim continued to fight an oppressive national security law and turned his attention to human rights in Asia as a whole, arguing against Singapore leader Lee Kwan Yew's view that there is nothing about Asia that is anathema to democracy.

After he was elected president in December 1997, Kim began to engage reclusive North Korea with his "sunshine" policy. Through social, business, and political contacts, he hoped to build trust and slowly reconcile long-time enemies.

The policy, combined with North Korea's desperation to feed its starving population and resuscitate its collapsed economy, has paid off. In June, Kim held the first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, opening the way for inter-Korean military talks in September and a possible visit to the North by President Clinton.

But not everyone is happy with Kim's award. The political opposition and conservative newspapers say he is just appeasing North Korea with his personal ambitions. Like many older Koreans, they are skeptical about peaceful reunification.

Critics offered grudging congratulations and pressed Kim to get on with fixing the domestic economy, which still suffers structural weaknesses nearly three years after the Asian economic crisis spread to South Korea.

Nevertheless, after achieving phenomenal economic growth and building a modern country out of the ashes of war, many felt it wrong that no Korean had ever been given the prestigious recognition the Peace Prize confers. President Kim said he wants to return the honor to the people "who have supported me during my 40 years of struggle."

Meanwhile, in the Kyobo Bookstore's entrance hall, shoppers pause to look at the newly hung portrait of Kim Dae Jung. Said one customer, "Wow. That's very good. Very good."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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