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The late Kim Dae-jung of South Korea leaves a complex legacy that changed the Korean peninsula

September 1, 2009
As published in the Aug. 28 issue of The Seattle Times

Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who died in August, made great headway in bringing improved relations with North Korea, writes Whitworth faculty member Norman Thorpe. Although some controversies cloud Dae-jung's legacy, the doors the Nobel laureate dared open continue to benefit South Korea's relationship with North Korea.

By Norman Thorpe, M.A.
Adjunct teacher in political science
Whitworth University
Special to The Seattle Times

Former South Korean President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung, who died Aug. 18, leaves a complex legacy of accomplishments and controversy.

The 85-year-old liberal politician spent much of his career fighting for democracy, battling a series of former generals and their backers. Twice, only U.S. intervention kept him from being killed. Finally, in 1997 he was elected president — the first opposition politician to win South Korea's presidency.

After being elected, Kim was surprisingly conciliatory toward his former enemies. He focused on reducing tension with South Korea's enemy, North Korea. Forty-five years of confrontation with the North having changed nothing, Kim adopted a new approach, the "Sunshine Policy," based on engaging Pyongyang instead of confronting it.

He opened the door for South Korean companies to do business with the North, and for South Koreans to visit the North as tourists. In the years that followed, more than 1.5 million South Koreans made trips to North Korea's famed Diamond Mountains; others made visits elsewhere in the North.

In 2000, Kim himself crossed the DMZ for a summit with northern leader Kim Jong Il. Before South Korean TV cameras, North Korea's dictator turned out to be charming and respectful, surprising many South Koreans, who had been educated to expect a tyrant and boor. The two Kims signed an agreement to seek reconciliation.

South Koreans soon learned, however, that North Korea would exploit them at every opportunity. North Korea charged a fee for every tourist and extracted other payments from other visitors. A museum director had to send camera equipment, film and other goods before Pyongyang approved a trip to the North. When his group applied for a second trip, Pyongyang demanded $120,000 worth of fertilizer. The group canceled its plans.

Kim Dae-jung apparently got caught by the same web. After the summit, allegations emerged that he had paid North Korea around $500 million to get Kim Jong Il to agree to the meeting. The allegations quickly tarnished the Nobel Prize Kim had been awarded for his outreach to the North, with critics asserting he had paid North Korea a half-billion-dollar bribe to win it. Kim never adequately addressed the issue, which along with charges of corruption by members of his family, clouded his image.

Meanwhile, North Korea continued developing nuclear weapons and missiles, and last year northern soldiers shot and killed a woman tourist at the Diamond Mountains. Trips there were suspended.

I last saw Kim two years ago with a group of reporters who had covered the democracy struggle. Kim discussed the Sunshine Policy, saying much had been achieved, including reunions between several thousand people in families divided between North and South, the hiring of thousands of northern workers at South Korean factories in a North Korean industrial park, and cultural change in North Korea, with residents secretly listening to southern TV dramas and pop music. Continued negotiations with North Korea could solve the nuclear issue, he said.

What about human rights in North Korea? someone asked. The key to improving those, he said, was engagement. "No matter how much you criticize outside of North Korea, that doesn't improve North Korean human rights. The way to improve human rights is to open the country."

I visited Seoul again recently. Kim was hospitalized, with the media following his condition. As his health faded, I asked acquaintances what they thought his legacy would be. Opinions were divided, and some critics were vehement.

It's too easy for Kim just to die, a conservative said, adding that Kim should have to reveal details of the murky financial deal he apparently made with Pyongyang. A Korean diplomat said that even if Kim had good intentions, whatever money he gave North Korea was probably used for nuclear weapons and missiles, so the gift weakened Seoul's security.

The museum director, however, said that despite Pyongyang's profiteering, the Sunshine Policy achieved important gains. Most notably, he said, North Koreans learned South Koreans don't hate them. In North Korea, security officers monitored his group's every step, but after a couple days of awkwardness, they developed a friendly relationship, he said. When they said goodbye at the end of the trip, people on both sides had tears in their eyes. In both North and South, attitudes about the other side have changed, he said.

Critics' views of Kim may be changing, too. During his last days, former foes visited Kim's wife as she maintained a vigil at the hospital, signifying their desire to put past issues behind them. After his death, Kim's contributions were praised by both ends of the political spectrum, and the government honored him with a state funeral, something not done for another past president who died recently.

Current President Lee Myung-Bak, a conservative, has offered to help fund economic development for North Korea if it abandons its nuclear programs. He has asked Pyongyang to discuss reducing conventional arms, as well, and says he, too, is willing to meet Kim Jong Il. His offers are based partly on the foundation Kim Dae-jung laid with North Korea.

So the groundbreaking effort that Kim Dae-jung launched to end tension with the North could keep moving forward. Or, Pyongyang could be intransigent and keep that from happening.

Even if that's the case, some people told me: How unfortunate it would have been if no Korean leader had taken the risks Kim took, to try at least to bring d├ętente to the Korean peninsula.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

Norman Thorpe teaches about modern Korea as part of the Asian Studies program at Whitworth University, in Spokane. He also teaches a summer-session course about Korea at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, in Seoul. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a reporter in Seoul for the Asian Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review. He also was co-founder, editor and president of the Journal of Business, in Spokane.

Note: The opinions expressed in works written by Whitworth faculty and staff do not necessarily represent the views of Whitworth University or members of its community. They are, however, symbolic of Whitworth’s commitment as a Christian university to the free exchange of ideas.