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25 Years  Intro |  Democrat |  Film |  Architecture | Book  25 Years
The Best Democrat

Asiaweek Pictures.
South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung.

'Democracy alone is the road to freedom, economic equality and social welfare'

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon, facing the possibility of prison after the Watergate scandal, mused that at least he would be in good company. Many of the great political leaders had once been behind bars. It was a good place, Nixon said philosophically, to think and catch up on one's reading. He was never incarcerated, but South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung spent most of the years between 1973 and 1982 — from the time he was kidnapped in Tokyo by the forces of the dictator Park Chung Hee to his death sentence after the Kwangju massacre — either imprisoned or under house arrest (arriving home after an amnesty in 1979, top picture). With only a commercial college education, he used those years productively, soaking up knowledge from classic political tracts, ranging from Mencius to Aristotle.

But Kim Dae Jung would not be Asia's Best Democrat had he been a martyr alone. He is, besides being one of the great modern political thinkers, a man of action, who has devoted his life to advancing democracy in South Korea. That's been true since he was writing fiery pro-democracy editorials as a young newspaper editor. He won his first seat in parliament in 1961, only to find the National Assembly building surrounded by tanks in the military coup that brought Park to power. In 1971 he made the first of four bids (campaigning in 1987, middle) for president — running against Park himself. In the initial campaign he was hit by a car, perhaps deliberately, which makes him walk with a shuffle today.

Still, Kim Dae Jung is no ivory-tower democrat. He can be shrewd, practical, even ruthless when he has to be. His comeback in 1997, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power from a ruling to an opposition party in South Korea's history, was a masterpiece of political manipulation. He made an alliance with the conservative Kim Jong Pil, the very man who had masterminded the coup that prevented him from taking his assembly seat more than 30 years before. As president (meeting the press, bottom), Kim Dae Jung has shown toughness in getting his way with the legislature and Korea's large business conglomerates, but he also has steadfastly held to his vision of reconciliation with North Korea, known as his "sunshine policy." He was rewarded with the historic summit meeting in Pyongyang in June.

It should not be said that Kim Dae Jung brought democracy to South Korea by himself. Others prepared the ground, especially Roh Tae Woo, who in 1987 opened the presidency to direct election, and Kim Young Sam, a longtime democracy activist in his own right who became in 1993 Korea's first elected civilian president in decades. Other great Asian democrats include Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, who helped restore democracy after the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. But as a philosopher of democracy, as an activist and finally as a successful leader, Kim Dae Jung is in a class by himself.

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