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Kim Dae-jung: From pariah to visionary

Kim Dae-jung, center, is flanked Saturday by Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, left, and Gunnar Berge, head of the Nobel Committee, at a press conference in Oslo  

In this story:

Solidifying his resolve

Reaching out to old adversaries


OSLO, Norway (CNN) -- For more than a quarter century, Kim Dae-jung has been South Korea's most renowned champion of democracy, human rights and reconciliation with its outcast sibling, North Korea.

As it happens, his commitment to those ideals has coincided with a noticeable change in global liberal values, and with a shift toward them by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. That is the Oslo-based philanthropic organization that annually bestows the world's most prestigious award for the promotion of international harmony, the Nobel Peace Prize.

On Sunday, Kim Dae-jung -- now President Kim Dae-jung -- is being honored by the committee as this year's recipient of the prize, elevating him to the ranks of one of the world's most exclusive fraternities: Nobel Prize laureates.

But for Kim the road to Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel diploma and medallion are bestowed, is littered with the pain of decades of struggle. As his country's leading dissident, he paid for his commitment to democratization and human rights with years of imprisonment, torture, death threats and public vilification at the hands of successive military regimes.

That commitment went public in 1954, when Kim at the age of 29 began publicly criticizing the autocratic style of South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee, jumping into the political arena with a run for the country's new parliament.

"I have come to the conclusion," he told supporters in his adopted hometown of Mok-po, "that the real well-being of the people cannot be realized unless a genuine democratic political system is firmly established by ending the dictatorship which ignores the will of the people and downgrades the National Assembly."

That was a daring and foolhardy thing for a young Korean to do in those days. But it was only Kim's opening shot in what was to become a 40-year crusade to democratize South Korea, even as military coups, political assassinations and mass arrests swirled around him.

Solidifying his resolve

In 1962, a year after the country's first coup, Kim was jailed and charged with plotting to overthrow the regime of Gen. Park Chung Hee. The time Kim spent behind bars solidified his support for human rights, and especially the humane treatment of political prisoners.

His continued political challenges to Park and his successor, Gen. Chun Hoo-hwan, brought Kim years in prison and house arrest, attempts against his life, exile and death sentences. But it failed to silence him. He became, instead, more openly critical of the military regimes, especially of their Draconian security laws that were used to rationalize the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of dissidents as threats to South Korea's defense against North Korea.

He called repeatedly for freedom of press and assembly, for release of all political prisoners, and for the repeal of the national security laws that prohibited any contact with North Koreans or comments that could be construed as sympathetic to the Stalinist regime in the North.

Kim devoted more of his time in prison to studying the pacifist teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He also spent many hours reading the reconciliatory writings of Abraham Lincoln as they pertained to the American Civil War, which struck the young Kim as highly instructive in thinking about the hostile relationship between North Korea and South Korea.

Kim began in the mid-1970s to advocate a peaceful reunification of North Korea and South Korea, culminating in a united, free and democratic Korean Peninsula sometime in the future. To that end, he labored for months behind bars developing a formula to achieve that reunification on the basis of three main principles: peaceful coexistence, peaceful exchange and peaceful reunification.

It was a Korean version of the "Ostpolitik" (eastern policy) that eventually helped bring down the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East Germany and West Germany. But all it brought Kim was new abuse by South Korea's military and politically conservative leaders, who denounced him as a pawn of Pyongyang, and his ideas as naive if not outright subversive.

Yet the tide of history was on Kim Dae-jung's side. As the Cold War was ending in the late 1980s, President Roh Tae-woo, the hand-picked successor of Chun Doo-hwan, began moving South Korea's government decisively toward democratization, freeing hundreds of political prisoners and incorporating many of Kim's ideas in his own new "Nordpolitik" (north policy) for dealing with Pyongyang.

Reaching out to old adversaries

But to Kim himself fell the task of taking the most dramatic steps toward fulfilling his long-held dreams for Korea. Finally elected president of South Korea in 1997, on his fourth try, Kim set out to put the crowning achievements on his own legacy. He immediately pardoned two of his predecessors -- Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo -- who had conspired to imprison and condemn him to death and were serving long sentences for corruption and treason, and he invited them to his inauguration.

He also freed nearly all of the country's political prisoners and set in motion a major thaw in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, culminating in the historic North Korean-South Korean Summit last June -- an unprecedented achievement that brought Kim accolades from around world and won him the label, "visionary."

Kim Dae-jung still has his detractors. There are those among the stalwart generation that fought the Korean War who will never trust anything that Pyongyang promises, and thus still believe that Kim is a pawn of the North. At the same time, some of his old allies in the struggle for justice, human rights and democracy in South Korea complain that as president, Kim hasn't moved fast enough to dismantle the old security laws. They also charge that he has been co-opted by the United States, the International Monetary Fund and other global institutions.

But in announcing its decision to award him the Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called Kim "his country's leading spokesman for democracy."

"With great moral strength," the Nobel committee added, "Kim Dae-jung has stood out in East Asia as a leading defender of universal human rights against attempts to limit the relevance of those rights in Asia." And it cited his attempts to "overcome more than 50 years of war and hostility between North and South Korea."

Joe Manguno was Seoul Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal from 1986-1991. He has known Kim Dae-jung and covered his career for 15 years. Manguno now works for CNN International television.

Korea at 50 - Leader Profiles: Kim Dae-jung

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