Kim Dae-Jung as South Korea’s President
Kim’s entry into politics was met with fierce opposition due to his ideals about a free South Korea. In spite of the persecution, he managed to secure a seat at the South Korean National Assembly twice and became president of South Korea in 1998. As president, he started a change in South Korea’s social and economic system, which greatly benefited the lower class people, allowing them to rise up from the challenges. He developed friendly relations with North Korea, a feat never before achieved by any president before him.
Kim Dae-Jung’s Early Biography
Kim Dae-Jung was believed to have been born in 1924, but was later reported to have been changed by Kim himself to 1925. This was done to avoid being conscripted into the army during the Japanese occupation. The son of a middle-class farmer, Kim spent his childhood when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule and witnessed all the suffering and hardships that his people faced. In some of his interviews, Kim recalled how he was very fortunate to have escaped death several times—from either being rounded up by the Japanese soldiers or from being sent to fight for the Japanese.
At an early age, Kim already demonstrated his uniqueness. In both his elementary and high school years, Kim always stood first in his class, impressing many of his teachers because of his amazing intellect. His classmates also favored him greatly because of his ability to easily connect to others and made many friends in school. In 1943, Kim completed his high school education and graduated at Mokpo Commercial High School with high honors.
Kim Dae-Jung’s Political Biography
After graduating from school, Kim went on to work as a clerk for a Japanese-owned shipping company. He exhibited exceptional talent and leadership at work, and found so much favor in his superiors that when Korea was liberated from the Japanese rule, Kim acquired the company and became rich. When the Korean War broke out, Kim was captured by the Communists and was sentenced to be killed by a firing squad. However, through favorable circumstances, Kim managed to flee to safety at the south-eastern portions of South Korea.
When the United Nations liberated South Korea, Kim returned to his hometown and resumed his business. He continued on becoming successful as a businessman until 1954 when Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, was starting to establish a dictatorial government.
Kim’s first attempts at entering politics proved to be both turbulent and challenging. From 1954 to 1960, Kim tried to win a seat at the National Assembly but failed to do so, largely because the government controlled the assembly and Kim’s ideals were exactly what the government was against. In 1961, Kim Dae-Jung managed to secure a seat at the National Assembly; however, three days later, Park Chung-hee, a South Korean general, seized power, voiding the elections.
Although this proved to be a big disappointment for Kim, he never strayed off the course and continued to do his part in promoting a democratic Korea. In 1963, he was elected into the National Assembly, where he quickly rose to becoming the junior leader. In 1965, he became the spokesman of the Democratic Party, and the following year, he became the party’s Policy Planning Committee Chairman.
Kim’s charismatic personality and excellent gift of oratory enabled him to become one of Korea’s most respected politicians, especially amongst the masses. His courage in speaking against the government’s tyranny and his dreams of freedom and democracy had inspired unwavering loyalty among his supporters. In fact, his greatest support came from his hometown, the Jeolla region, which gave him a 95% popular vote—a record that has never been surpassed in the political history of South Korea.
In 1967, Kim Dae-Jung was re-elected into the National Assembly as a result of his popularity that was brought about by his work during his previous term. In 1969, as Park Chung-hee was seeking constitutional provisions so that he could run for a third term, Kim participated in an outdoor rally and openly gave an address against the plot.
First Assassination Attempt
Being the most outspoken critic of the Chung-hee government, Kim became the opposition party’s obvious choice in the 1971’s presidential elections. After being chosen as the New Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Kim Dae-Jung started campaigning for the presidency. Despite having several handicaps due to the obstructionist tactics and the election-engineering practices of the incumbent government, Kim received more than 46% of the votes cast, nearly defeating Park to the presidency.
In the Assembly election campaign that followed the presidential vote, Kim Dae-Jung got involved in a serious accident after a large truck hit his car, injuring him and his two aides. Fortunately, he was immediately rushed to the hospital and treated for his injuries. This was the first of the many assassination attempts that he experienced throughout his career. In spite of these threats, Kim continued on pursuing his dream of a democratic and free South Korea. He still participated in many peaceful protests to call for the stepping down of President Park Chung-hee.
In 1972, barely a year after his re-election, President Chung-hee declared martial law and voided the “Yushin” Constitution, making him president for life. He also banned all political activities and started sending his opponents to prison, and he even had some of his opponents assassinated as many believed. Amidst all the threats and turmoil, Kim continued to fiercely oppose President Chung-hee’s regime, even going overseas to countries, such as the United States and Japan to lead campaigns against his government.
Kim Dae-Jung Kidnapping
In 1973, during his stay in Tokyo, Japan, Kim Dae-Jung experienced what would probably be his closest encounter with death—he was abducted by agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency who were sent there by the dictatorial government to silence him after all of the campaigns he led against President Park Chung-hee.
According to his reminiscence of the story, he was tied and was about to be drowned at sea but was immediately rescued after strong reactions from the United States and Japan forced President Chung-hee’s government to let Kim live. In a speech he made many years later, Kim recalled the terrifying events that he suffered during the kidnapping:
"I have lived, and continue to live, in the belief that God is always with me. I know this from experience. In August of 1973, while exiled in Japan, I was kidnapped from my hotel room in Tokyo by intelligence agents of the then military government of South Korea. The news of the incident startled the world. The agents took me to their boat at anchor along the seashore. They tied me up, blinded me, and stuffed my mouth. Just when they were about to throw me overboard, Jesus Christ appeared before me with such clarity. I clung to him and begged him to save me. At that very moment, an airplane came down from the sky to rescue me from the moment of death."
After being rescued, Kim was sent to Seoul and immediately placed under house arrest. For the next three years, Kim remained in secret contact with the opposition leaders and never wavered in his hope for a free South Korea. In 1976, Kim Dae-Jung participated in the issuing of the “Independence Day Declaration for Democratization,” an event that sparked a series of protests and demonstrations in many parts of Korea.
Pope John Paul II Saves Kim Dae-Jung from Death Penalty
Because of this, Kim was sent to jail along with many of the opposition leaders and had his political rights removed. He was sentenced to be imprisoned for five years, but his sentence was reduced to house arrest by President Chung-hee after some motivations from his council. During this time, Kim was declared as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, an international human rights organization.
The following year, in 1979, President Park Chung-hee was assassinated by one of his close aides. Two months after this, Kim was released from his house arrest and was granted his political rights. Finally free from being persecuted, Kim gathered the other leaders that were allied with him and started taking actions to make Korea a democratic nation. However, after several months of political unrest, Chun Doo-hwan led a coup d'état against the provisional government and took power in 1980.
Soon after, Kim was arrested by the authorities and tried in a military court for sedition and conspiracy. He was found guilty and was sentenced to death, but after some persuasion from the United States government, as well as a letter from Pope John Paul II—who requested for a clemency for Kim, a fellow Catholic—Chun Doo-hwan commuted Kim’s sentence to life imprisonment, and later on to a twenty–year term.
Kim Dae-Jung Meets Benigno Aquino, Jr.
In December 1982, he was allowed to leave South Korea to go to the United States and have medical treatment. After a few weeks of stay in the United States, Chun Doo-hwan’s government announced that Kim’s trip to the U.S. was in fact an exile.
During his temporary exile in the United States, Kim Dae-Jung made his stay in Boston and taught at the famous Harvard University, where he was a visiting professor at the university’s Center for International Affairs. He also met with Benigno Aquino, Jr., a Filipino opposition leader who was also exiled and learned of the same struggles and persecutions that he was facing. Kim also wrote several opinion pieces in many large newspapers that criticized his government.
In 1985, Kim decided to end his exile and return to Korea. Prior to returning, many of his supporters expressed their concerns about Kim returning to his homeland, that he might suffer the same fate as his friend, Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., who was assassinated as he was leaving the jet that brought him back to the Philippines. Although Kim did appreciate their concern, they did not stop him from going back. Upon his arrival, he was immediately placed under house arrest, but he could not be stopped from resuming his role as one of the leaders of the opposition.
Attempts at Becoming South Korea’s President
Kim’s return to Korea intensified the democratic movement that spanned the entire country. Finally, in 1987 he was cleared of all charges against him. In that same year, Chun Doo-hwan, who was being pressured by the growing demand of the pro-democracy protesters, finally allowed the very first honest presidential election in the country.
Finally getting a definite chance into establishing a democratic government, Kim Dae-Jung ran for presidency. However, things turned upside-down when Kim Young-Sam, a fellow opposition leader ran for presidency as well. Although the opposition candidates did receive more votes than Roh Tae-Woo—President Doo-Hwan’s handpicked successor—having two opposition candidates caused votes to be split, enabling Tae-Woo to win the election. The relationship between Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Young-Sam became strained, as both promised initially to unite under one banner, supporting Kim Dae-Jung as the presidential candidate.
During the 1992 elections, Kim Dae-Jung made another bid for the presidency against his former ally Kim Young-Sam, but was defeated after Young-Sam combined his own party with the Democratic Justice Party, forming the greater Democratic Liberal Party. After his defeat, Kim decided to take some time off politics, causing many to believe that he had decided to end his political career.
Kim left South Korea and went to England, where he took a position at the Cambridge University’s Clare Hall as a visiting scholar. After three years, Kim declared his intentions of returning to Korea and to politics, after witnessing the poverty and harsh living that his countrymen were enduring as a result of corruption.
Kim Dae-Jung Finally Becomes South Korea’s 8th President
In 1998, Kim made his fourth bid for presidency against Young-Sam’s successor Lee Hoi-Chang. By this time, Kim had the favor of a majority of the nation’s votes, mostly because of the public revolt against the incumbent government’s alleged corruption as well as the public’s dismay on the economic collapse that the country suffered just weeks prior to the election.
And in spite of Kim’s handicap in terms of educational attainment—Lee Hoi-Chang graduated top of his class from Seoul National University—he managed to win the favor of the people and become South Korea’s eighth president. His inauguration was a historic event, as it was the first time in Korean history that the ruling party transferred power to the democratically elected opposition victor peacefully.
As Kim was elected during Korea’s financial crisis, he focused his efforts into overcoming it by pushing forward economic reform and restructuring the country’s banking, business, and labor practices based on the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund.
The economic reforms were a success, and South Korea came out of the IMF’s bailout programs much quicker than everyone expected, significantly altering the landscape of South Korea’s economy. Even though the economy of South Korea shrank by 5.8% in 1998, the following year, it surprised many economists by growing to 10.2%.
Aside from getting South Korea’s economy back up, Kim Dae-Jung also improved the relations between South and North Korea by implementing his “Sunshine” policy, which encouraged South Koreans to visit their relatives in the North and created a détente between the two countries.
Fostering Ties with Kim Jong-Il
In June 2000, Kim Dae-Jung met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in a historic summit that began a mutual relationship between the two former enemy nations. Although the summit was a success, it did not escape controversy. It was revealed that several hundred million dollars were paid to the North Korean government just to have the summit. Because of this, Kim’s Sunshine policy was attacked by many foreign entities. One of them was the United States paper, “The Village Voice,” which noted the transactions between the two countries and the atrocities that have been committed in North Korea.
Because of his efforts in making peace with North Korea, Kim Dae-Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After moving into the Blue House, where all the presidents of South Korea lived, there were many uncertain speculations as to how Kim Dae-Jung would handle the office. Many speculated that Kim would use this opportunity to take care of the people that did him wrong in the past, such as Chun Doo-Hwan, who once sentenced Kim to death for sedition and conspiracy; however, Kim did the unthinkable and instead pardoned Doo-Hwan, showing his true personality—a peace-loving and merciful individual.
Kim’s presidency ushered the prosperity that South Korea is currently enjoying. It was Kim Dae-Jung who first introduced the country’s welfare state and greatly fostered the increasing significance of South Korea worldwide, which includes the FIFA World Cup, hosted jointly by Japan and South Korea.
The Kim Dae-Jung Presidential Library and Museum
In 2003, Kim Dae-Jung, barred by electoral rules to seek a second term as president, completed his term and gave the presidency to the newly elected, Roh Moo-Hyun. After leaving the presidential post, the people of Gwangju constructed a presidential library at Yonsei University as a tribute to Kim Dae-Jung.
Even after he left the office, Kim continued to involve himself in the affairs of his country, often giving consultation and advice to the incumbent leaders on how to promote a better society and democratic state. And despite receiving many criticisms for his Sunshine policy towards the North Koreans, he continued to defend the policy, and even called for restraint against the North Koreans when the latter detonated a nuclear bomb.
Roh Moo-Hyun’s Suicide
In 2008, Kim was given an honorary doctorate at the University of Portland. It was there that he delivered his speech entitled “Challenge, Response, and God.” He returned to South Korea afterwards and continued his work in helping the government establish a better society for his fellow countrymen.
In May 2009, Kim received news of the suicide of Roh Moo-Hyun, which greatly saddened him. Three months later, Kim suffered multiple organ dysfunction and was sent to the Severance Hospital of the Yonsei University. On August 18, Kim Dae-Jung succumbed to his illness and died. He was given a state funeral by South Korean citizens, the third person in their history to have ever received one.
Kim Dae-Jung’s life was filled with many challenges and hardships, but this never stopped him from achieving his dream. And while it was indeed a long road filled with spikes and traps here and there, Kim had people around him who continued to believe and support him. Kim Dae-Jung is a truly inspiring figure that many could relate to—a person, who in the midst of trial and suffering, continued to persevere and believe that his dream for his nation can be achieved—and finally became someone who changed his nation’s history forever.
- 1963-1971: Representative at the South Korean House of Representatives
- 1998-2003: President of South Korea
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Democratic United Party
- Kim Dae-Jung Presidential Library and Museum
Awards and Achievements
- 2000: Won the Nobel Peace Prize
- 2008: Honorary Doctorate from the University of Poland