Kim Dae-jung: A Life of Trials and Steely Determination

      August 19, 2009 10:22

      The life of former President Kim Dae-jung was too full to describe in a few words. His tumultuous 85 years are so intertwined with Korea's modern history that it is impossible to talk about the nation's hardship and glory without mentioning Kim's name.

      Former President Kim Dae-jung during his days at Mokpo Commercial High School

      ◆ Trials and Tribulations

      Kim was given the nickname "honeysuckle," and it is difficult to find a better way to sum up Kim's life than the flower, which endures the harshest of winters and blossoms in early summer.

      Born in January 1924 in South Jeolla Province, Kim was the second son of a poor farmer. He graduated from Mokpo Commercial High School (Jeonnam Jeil High School today) and married his first wife Cha Yong-ae in the port city. It was Mokpo that elected him twice as a lawmaker following his victory in the general elections in 1963.

      Until he rose to the presidency, Kim's political career was characterized by one tribulation after another. His six years in prison and 10 years under house arrest are testament to his endurance. Kim often said he had four brushes with death. In September 1950, he was captured by communist soldiers and escaped from Mokpo prison just before he was about to face a firing squad. In 1971, he suffered a mysterious and near-fatal car accident as he was campaigning in support of a New Democratic Party candidate running for a seat in the eighth National Assembly.

      When President Park Chung-hee declared measures in October of 1972 to reinforce his authoritarian rule, Kim was unable to return from Japan and remained there in political exile. He rallied anti-Park forces in Japan, prompting Park to have him kidnapped by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in downtown Tokyo. KCIA agents apparently intended to drown him in the middle of the East Sea but were forced to abort the mission under pressure from the U.S. government.

      Instead, Kim was brought back to Korea and put under house arrest at his home in Seoul. There, he began his pro-democracy movement. In 1976, he was arrested on charges of leading the proclamation of an anti-government manifesto and served a two-year prison term. He was released in 1978 but immediately put under house arrest again.

      Clockwise from top left, former President Kim Dae-jung in his days as a lawmaker; running against Park Chung-hee in the 1971 presidential election; on trial for rebellion in 1980; and abducted in 1973.

      Kim enjoyed a brief "spring of democracy" following the assassination of Park in 1979, but the new military government that rose to power in 1980 accused him of sedition and conspiracy and in January of 1981, the Supreme Court sentenced him to death. However, international efforts to save him and widespread coverage of his plight in the international press forced the government to commute the sentence to life in prison and then to 20 years imprisonment. He spent two years and seven months in jail.

      In December 1982, Kim was exiled from Korea for the second time. This time, he headed to the U.S. He suddenly returned to Korea in February 1985, just ahead of the general election, but was placed under house arrest again. He was finally able to resume political activities following the June 10 pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the country in 1987.

      ◆ Failure and Comeback

      Kim is seen as a successful politician because be became president, but he had to endure countless defeats and setbacks, as well as the painful process of recovery to reach that point. Even in his darkest hour, his political will never wavered.

      His bid for the presidency in 1971 was as an important opportunity to consolidate his status at the center of Korea's political establishment for the next 30 years. He ran for president four times since then and was finally elected as Korea's 15th president in December 1997. It was the first ever peaceful transfer of power for the Republic of Korea since its establishment.

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