Kim Dae-jung dies at 85; former South Korean president and Nobel laureate

Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident who survived three assassination attempts, one death sentence and six years in prison to become South Korea’s president and its first Nobel laureate, died Tuesday in Seoul after a long bout of pneumonia. He was 85.

South Korea’s president from 1998 to 2003, Kim is best known for the moment on June 13, 2000, when he stepped onto the tarmac at Pyongyang’s airport with arms outstretched to embrace North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

That landmark meeting, which was supposed to end 50 years of enmity between the Koreas, won Kim the Nobel Peace Prize. But Kim lived just long enough to see his “sunshine policy” unraveling as a result of North Korea’s continued nuclear ambitions and the installation last year of a conservative president in South Korea.

The meeting in Pyongyang was only one of many dramatic moments in a most eventful life.


There was the time in 1973 that Kim found himself on a boat -- blindfolded and manacled, his limbs encased in concrete -- about to be tossed overboard by assassins presumably working for South Korea’s military dictatorship. And there was his return from exile in the United States in 1985, when he arrived at Seoul’s airport flanked by U.S. congressmen, only to be immediately seized and placed under house arrest.

After four decades as the country’s most famous dissident, Kim (often known by his nickname D.J. to distinguish him from other Kims in public life) became president in 1998. By daring to meet with Kim Jong Il, he established what many think is an irreversible course of rapprochement between the estranged Koreas. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his sunshine policy of engaging North Korea and his lifelong struggle for democratization.

But his final years were spent in frustration. He was disappointed by Kim Jong Il’s failure to reciprocate for the Pyongyang summit with a visit to Seoul, as well as by the George W. Bush administration’s skeptical attitude toward his efforts.

Just five months after winning the Nobel, Kim was humiliated during a White House visit when newly inaugurated President Bush was publicly dismissive of the idea that one could negotiate with the North Koreans.


“Although I understand fully why the North Korean leadership is not very likable, it is in the interests of global peace to pursue the policy of dialogue,” Kim later recalled telling Bush.

Kim also had to spend his later years fending off a series of political scandals. His youngest son was arrested on charges of taking bribes from a lobbyist. The revelation that Kim’s aides had secretly ordered the transfer of $500 million to North Korea shortly before the meeting with Kim Jong Il led to charges that he had bought the summit and hence the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2005, investigators discovered that this icon of democracy and human rights had allowed illegal wiretapping during his presidency at a pace unmatched even by South Korea’s former military dictators.

Like former dissidents who became president -- Lech Walesa of Poland or Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic -- Kim’s image abroad was always better than at home.


“The Koreans forgot that he was a champion of democracy and saw him just as another political boss,” said Michael Breen, a Seoul-based biographer of Kim Jong Il who has been researching a biography of Kim Dae-jung.

Kim was succeeded as South Korea’s president by Roh Moo-hyun, a similarly left-leaning politician who tried to continue the rapprochement with Pyongyang. But the 2007 elections brought conservatives back in power.

North Korea’s two nuclear tests, one in 2006 and a more recent one in May, have been viewed by many in South Korea as proof that Kim’s policies of conciliation were a failure.

Hahm Sung-deuk, a presidential scholar at Korea University in Seoul, predicted that South Koreans will come to appreciate Kim more.


“His legacy will grow with time. Even if he made some mistakes, people appreciate his contributions to democracy and his handling of the economy,” Hahm said Tuesday.

Kim was born on tiny Haui island off the southwestern coast of South Korea, in Cholla province. He has said that his date of birth was Jan. 6, 1924, although various later dates are often cited in official records -- discrepancies that opponents used against him to claim he was dishonest. The most likely explanation was that his family was trying to keep him out of the draft during the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation period.

When he was 7 or 8, Kim was sent to study the Chinese classics with a village scholar. His academic abilities proved phenomenal, and the family moved to the mainland port city of Mokpo so that he could further his education. He became involved in anti-Japanese activities, at one point joining an underground group of young communists who read banned Marxist texts.

Despite scoring top grades through high school, Kim’s father did not permit him to attend university, insisting that the family needed him to get a job. Nevertheless, he remained an avid reader.


His first job was working with a shipping company in Mokpo. In 1947, he bought a ship and started his own company. In that same year, according to Breen, he was arrested by a local detective who suspected Kim of being a communist. He was held briefly, but there would soon be many longer stays under lock and key. In 1950, when North Korean troops came swarming across the border, Kim was held by the invading forces for several months before United Nations forces pushed them back.

After the Korean War, Kim had another setback. His first wife, whom he had married soon after high school, died suddenly, leaving him to care for their two young boys. He converted to Catholicism, remaining devout through the end of his life. He later married Lee Hi ho, a Christian activist, and had another son.

Kim is survived by his wife and sons Kim Hong-up, Kim Hong-il and Kim Hong-gul.

In the 1950s Kim caught the attention of John Chang Myon, a prominent Catholic politician, and began showing an interest in politics.


The emphasis in those lean postwar years was on rebuilding the tattered nation, but Kim didn’t believe other values should be subsumed by the quest for economic growth.

“A national economy lacking a democratic foundation is a castle built on sand,” Kim said in his Nobel lecture.

He won his first election in 1961 as a national assemblyman for the Mokpo district, but before he arrived to take his seat in the National Assembly in Seoul, a general, Park Chung Hee, staged a military coup and closed the parliament.

A decade later, Park held a presidential election and opposition party leaders decided to bring in younger candidates. Kim Dae-jung stunned the power establishment by nearly beating Park.


The same year his car was pushed off the road by a truck in what he believed was an assassination attempt. He was left with a limp that gave him a peculiar Charlie Chaplin-like waddle. He left the country the following year.

In 1973, he was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel room, drugged with ether and dragged onto the boat where he was to be thrown overboard.

“I knew that death was only moments away,” Kim later wrote. “I heard them discussing how to keep my body from floating to the surface if the sharks didn’t get me first.”

While the boat was sailing through the waters, a plane began circling overhead flashing a red light. Kim was taken back to South Korea. He said later that he believed that the CIA had intervened, but his miraculous rescue has never been fully explained.


Over the next 14 years, Kim was in prison, under house arrest or in exile. He was given the death sentence in 1980 on trumped-up charges of sedition. He fled to the United States for two years, teaching at Georgetown University. It was not until 1987 that he was free to establish a pro-democracy political party.

In 1993, after losing his third race for the presidency -- after previous tries in 1971 and 1987 -- Kim announced he was retiring from politics. He went to Europe to study Germany’s reunification and said he would dedicate the rest of his life to Korean reunification.

It wasn’t long before he was back. He cut a deal with the former head of the KCIA, the intelligence agency that had tried to kill him at least once, to give more conservative ballast to his ticket. Kim Jong Pil became his first prime minister.

As president, Kim put reconciliation at the top of his agenda, not just between the North and South, but within South Korea. At his inauguration, among the most notable guests were former strongmen Chung Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo, who had ordered Kim tried and sentenced to death on the sedition charges.


Kim took office on the heels of an economic debacle in which South Korea, by then the world’s 11th largest economy, had been forced to take a $58-billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The loan was repaid in 2001, nearly three years ahead of schedule, and Kim won high marks from the very business executives who had grumbled that he was a leftist who knew nothing about the economy.

Kim came under criticism for being too lax with North Korea, turning a blind eye to human rights violations and propping up the regime of Kim Jong Il with humanitarian aid and cash gifts.

Once out of office, Kim was bluntly unrepentant about charges that he had paid for the summit.

“When a rich brother goes to visit a poorer brother, the rich brother should not go empty-handed,” he told the Financial Times in 2004.