Dissident cheated death to win presidency

August 19, 2009 12:00 am

, SEOUL, Aug 20 – South Korean democracy campaigner Kim Dae-Jung survived assassination bids, a death sentence, prison and exile to win the presidency and the Nobel peace prize.

Kim, who died Tuesday aged 85, said in 2006 he had no regrets about his turbulent life and had never compromised his principles.

"I underwent many ordeals in my life but I never strayed from principles and never compromised with injustice, even at the risk of my life," he said.

As president from 1998-2003, he described his biggest achievement as the landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in 2000 that paved the way for reconciliation and earned him a Nobel prize later that year.

Kim was born on a small village on an island off the southwest coast. The Seoul presidential office lists the official date as January 6, 1924, while the Nobel Prize website and various reference books give it as December 3, 1925.

He graduated from a prestigious commercial high school in 1943 and went into business operating a shipping company, but was captured and almost executed by communists during the 1950-53 Korean War before escaping.

After the war he decided to enter politics in response to the increasingly dictatorial rule of founding president Syngman Rhee, who was forced out of office in 1960.

After two unsuccessful bids Kim was elected to parliament in 1961. But three days later the assembly was dissolved following a military coup led by Major General Park Chung-Hee.

Park, Kim’s nemesis for almost two decades, presided over dramatic economic development accompanied by increasing human rights abuses and dictatorial behaviour.

Kim was again elected to parliament in 1963 and began to emerge as a junior leader in the opposition.

A fiery orator, he became a presidential candidate in 1971 and almost defeated the incumbent Park despite obstructionist tactics and vote-rigging.

Soon afterwards Kim was nearly killed in an apparent assassination attempt disguised as a road accident, which left him a permanent limp.

In 1972 Park declared the Yushin (renovation) dictatorship and made himself president for life.

Kim strenuously campaigned against Park in the United States and Japan. In August 1973 he was kidnapped by Korean CIA agents from a Tokyo hotel.

He was about to be dumped in the sea but swift action by Washington and Tokyo saved his life. He was taken to Seoul but put under house arrest a week later.

Despite being banned from political activities, Kim in March 1976 joined other democracy fighters in leading a wave of demonstrations. He was jailed but released under house arrest in 1978.

When Park was assassinated in October 1979, Kim and other opposition politicians were reinstated under a brief flowering of democracy.

But after just seven months a military group led by Major General Chun Doo-Hwan seized power.

Kim was thrown into prison in May 1980 on charges of treason and subsequently sentenced to death by a martial law court.

Following strong US pressure the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in exchange for a visit by Chun to the White House in 1981.

In December 1982 Kim was released and allowed to fly into exile in the United States. He returned home in early 1985 and was immediately placed under house arrest, but his presence invigorated the pro-democracy movement.

Waves of protests forced the military government to accept democratic reform in June 1987 and Kim and many other political leaders were reinstated.

Committing what he later called the "greatest mistake in my life," Kim ran in the presidential election that year but split the opposition vote with another top pro-democracy leader, Kim Young-Sam.

Chun’s former military classmate Roh Tae-Woo became president but did not attempt to roll back democracy. Kim ran again in the 1992 election but lost to Kim Young-Sam, who had joined the ruling party.

In the December 1997 election he finally won the presidency, taking office the following February with the nation mired in a financial crisis. It was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a 57-billion-dollar bailout.

Under Kim’s leadership, South Korea pulled itself out of the crisis and launched major economic reforms and corporate restructuring.

His life-long vision for peace led him to pursue reconciliation with communist North Korea. A landmark summit was marred by controversy after it emerged that his government arranged for a business group to pay the North 500 million dollars as an inducement to hold it.

But Kim never wavered on the need for reconciliation. "This is the best way to end the national tragedy and make a reunified motherland," he said in his final speech in office.

In domestic politics, too, he believed in forgiveness. One of his first acts as president was to pardon Chun Doo-Hwan, who had been convicted of treason and corruption after leaving office.


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