Kim Dae-jung: controversial bid for 'sunshine'

The one-time democracy advocate and then president of South Korea, he focused on trying to improve relations with the North.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A mourner displays candles during a memorial service for the late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in front of the Seoul City Hall, South Korea, Tuesday. Kim, who survived assassination attempts during his years as a dissident and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation efforts with communist North Korea, died Tuesday.
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Kim Dae-jung, South Korea's president from 1998 to 2003, who died Tuesday, dedicated his career to fighting dictatorial leaders and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his unremitting efforts at reconciliation with North Korea,.

Praise for Mr. Kim's achievements poured in from his admirers as well as longtime foes. South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who strongly opposed Kim's conciliatory outlook toward North Korea, called him "a great political leader" whose "accomplishments and aspirations to achieve democratization and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered."

The US Embassy in Seoul hailed him as "an inspired leader, a committed activist and a good friend," citing "significant gains" in relations between the United States and Korea during his presidency.

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The statement masked the fact that US-Korean relations, for much of Mr. Kim's presidency, were strained by enormous differences over his signature issue: his approach to achieving North-South reconciliation.

Elected president – on his fourth attempt – in December 1997, Kim Dae-jung broke through the barrier of North-South confrontation when he flew to Pyongyang in June 2000 to meet the North's Kim Jong-il for the first inter-Korean summit. Six months later, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The summit was the crowning moment in Kim Dae-jung's pursuit of his "Sunshine Policy." Advocates and critics have long debated the success of the policy, hailed for easing the North-South confrontation in the decades after the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War, but denounced for failing to compel the North to give up its nuclear program while avoiding the issue of widespread human rights abuses in the North.

A populist leader

A populist leader with a strong regional backing, Mr. Kim emerged as the voice of the pent-up sentiments of Korea's southwestern Cholla provinces, oppressed by rulers going deep into Korea's dynastic history and then by latter-day leaders with roots in the southeastern provinces.

Kim's victory in 1997 as the first opposition leader to win the presidency culminated a career that began in Mokpo, the port city in South Cholla near the tiny island where he was born, by most accounts, in 1925. The offspring of a farming family, Kim attended high school in Mokpo and served in an unofficial naval militia unit.

After the war, Kim edited a local newspaper and entered politics as a leftist activist in a setting in which he could play upon a deep-seated yearning to escape from heavy-handed rule.

Kim, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1957, married Lee Hee-ho, a YWCA executive and devout Methodist, in 1962, after the death of his first wife.

Kim challenged Park Chung-hee, the general who seized power in May 1961, in the 1971 election, winning 43.6 percent of the votes.

Nearly four weeks later, he was severely injured in a collision that he said was an attempt to assassinate him. His showing in the election inspired General Park to impose martial law and a Yushin, or "revitalizing," constitution, that gave him dictatorial power.

As Kim gained international support for his criticism of Park, Korean agents kidnapped him from his hotel room in Tokyo in 1973. After the US ambassador to Korea, Philip Habib, protested to Park, Kim was dumped near his home in Seoul. Nearly three years later, Kim was arrested for signing a "declaration of democratization" and remained in prison until his release in 1978.

Placed under house arrest several months after Park's October 1979 assassination, Kim was imprisoned, tried, and sentenced to death for instigating the bloody Kwangju revolt of May 1980, in which soldiers killed approximately 200 people, mostly students who had held the city for two weeks.

The United States persuaded Chun Doo-hwan, the general who seized power after Park, to commute the death sentence in return for an invitation to become the first foreign head of state to visit President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

In 1982, Kim was exiled to the United States. He returned to Seoul in a blaze of publicity on Feb. 8, 1985. He lost presidential elections in 1987 and 1992 after nationwide protests forced Chun to agree in June 1987 to a "democracy constitution."

A touch of 'Sunshine'

He was finally victorious in 1997, narrowly defeating a conservative candidate in the midst of an economic crisis that swept much of Asia.

Soon after his inauguration in February 1998, he laid out his Sunshine policy, and in 2000, said that the South was "willing to provide the infrastructure" to jumpstart the North's collapsed economy.

On June 13, 2000, Kim flew to Pyongyang on the first flight from Seoul to Pyongyang since the Korean War. Kim Jong-il greeted him at the airport, and crowds cheered as they drove into the city.

The two leaders in a joint declaration pledged to work for "reunification" and to resolve "humanitarian issues," including reunions of millions of families divided by the Korean War, as well as return of political prisoners. In the run-up to announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim Dae-jung returned 63 former prisoners, some of them jailed for years on espionage charges.

Accepting the Nobel in Oslo in 2000, Kim said that he and Kim Jong-il had "succeeded in bridging the unification formulas" by proposing a system of "one people, two systems and two independent governments."

Fulfillment of the promises made in Pyongyang was slow. Inter-Korean family visits were limited in number and length and tightly monitored. North Korea stopped reunions in South Korea.

Ultimately, the image of the summit was deeply undermined by an investigation in South Korea in 2002 that confirmed the secret transfer of as much as $500 million to persuade Kim Jong-il to agree to hosting it.

Kim's Sunshine policy had the support of President Bill Clinton, whose secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, visited Pyongyang in October 2000.

A senior North Korean official's acknowledgement to a US delegation in October 2002 of a program for developing highly enriched uranium led to the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva agreement under which North Korea had stopped producing plutonium for warheads in exchange for construction of twin light water energy reactors.

George W. Bush, who hosted Kim at the White House in early 2001, expressed "skepticism" regarding verification of any agreement with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, on nuclear weapons. He then deepened differences by including North Korea in an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, in his State of the Union address in 2002.

Kim's successor as president, Roh Moo-hyun, carried out the policy of reconciliation with the North.

At Mr. Roh's funeral in May, Kim paid tribute to the former president, but spoke regretfully of the reversal of "Sunshine" by the conservative President Lee, who was elected by a landslide in December 2007.

Lee insisted on verification of anything North Korea claimed in terms of giving up its nuclear program. He also stopped providing food and fertilizer, as his predecessors had done.

North Korea denounced Lee as a traitor, said it was again producing nuclear materiel, refused to return to six-nation talks, and said that the truce that ended the Korean War was void.

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