Thursday, December 26, 2002

Kim Dae-Jung - The martyr, the duck

Kim Dae-jung was born on December 3, 1925. As a staunch advocate of democracy in Korea he has spent his lifetime fighting for the democratic and human rights of the Korean people. Despite a lifetime of hardship and suffering he never lost sight of his goal and never compromised his principles. But as his tenure as president comes to an end, will he be remembered as a stalwart of the democratic movement in Korea, or as a lame duck who failed to reconcile with labour unions during the recovery from economic crises, or the man who initiated the Sunshine Policy toward north Korea?

Kim Dae-Jung left his shipping business in 1954 to enter the political fray. There were tumultuous times in Korean politics. Rhee hung firmly on to power with the backing of the US. At the same time tensions between north and south were always high as each eyed each other across the 38th parallel. Severe unrest in the south led to the resignation of Rhee in 1960 followed by a brief civilian administration before Park Chung-Hee strided into power in 1961. Park Chung-Hee saw in many ways that his role was to maintain an environment of stability and security in order to allow for economic growth and always alleged to follow up with democracy once conditions were favourable to do so. Elections in fact were held during his reign, it’s just that the results may not have been altogether “free and fair”. Kim Dae-jung made his first bid for the presidency in 1971. It was a close election and DJ lost by a small margin. This was too close a call for Park who had him kidnapped and nearly killed. He was saved thanks to US intervention.

The 1980s are best known in Korea for riots and demonstrations calling for democracy. The assassination of Park in 1979 left a power vacuum that was difficult to fill. The new military leader, Chun Doo-hwan tried to do this but he was not very popular with the people and riots were taking place all over the country. The most infamous of these was the Kwangju uprising in which hundreds of students and civilians died when the government forces moved in. Kim Dae-jung was subsequently arrested and sentenced to death for allegedly organising the movement. He was pardoned again thanks to US pressure.

Kim DJ made his second bid for the presidency in 1987 but lost to Chun’s good friend, Roh Tae-woo. Elections held in 1992 saw DJ again as a candidate, this time losing to Kim Young-sam. Kim YS pushed forward a rigorous anti-corruption campaign during his time in office which eventually also led to the arrest of the two former presidents and his own son. But despite the efforts he made in this area, he is best known for his economic ineptitude which became blatant at the time of the 1997 financial crises. 1997 was also time for the next election and this time, DJ finally got in.

As incoming president DJ had two strong mandates. Oversee economic recovery and relations with north Korea. On the economic side, DJ announced December 2nd as National Shame Day; the day Korea had to get help from the IMF. DJ’s popularity with the workers also faltered on this front. Seen as a man on the side of the labourer, DJ soon lost their support as lay offs increased and the economy worsened. In fact, his inability on this side and questions of his ability in the end to ensure the continuity and momentum of reforms on all four sectors (public, corporate, labour, and financial) led many to speculate whether DJ was a lame duck ruler. Initial success with the Sunshine policy resulting in his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize also waned as the north continued to recalcitrant and speculation arose over corruption behind the policy.

But now his time in the Blue House is over. He has had moments of success and moments of hardship during his time in office but I believe that the reason to remember DJ should not be his time in office but his role as an activist and believer in human rights and democracy. His greatest contributions and achievement to the development did not occur while he was in the Blue House but throughout his entire life as he selflessly endured torture, arrest and exile for the sake of his country and I believe the democratic development that has occurred in this country in the past decades is a testament to the sacrifice and work of people like DJ.

Profile links that I referred to and thought were interesting: BBC and CNN

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui