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Mary Wald

Mary Wald

Posted: August 18, 2009 02:53 PM

Kim Dae Jung: A Hero for Peace

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There is a generation of leaders in the world, students of Gandhi, who used non-violent means to change their regions of the world. They are passing before our eyes. One of them was lost yesterday.

These are leaders who watched the Kennedys break all tradition and publicly stand up for the rights of Africans to rule themselves. They watched with fascination as Martin Luther King marched in Birmingham and changed the face of the US. And they said "if he can do it, maybe I can." Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu in South Africa, John Hume in Northern Ireland, José Ramos-Horta in East Timor, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Oscar Arias in Costa Rica. Many of them went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung was one of those.

He was first elected to South Korea's National Assembly in 1961. One month later, Gen. Park Chung-hee voided the election, staged a coup and seized control of the government. Kim Dae Jung's career was launched as a pro-democracy, popular, fiery opposition leader, gathering people in parks for rallies and generally being a thorn in the side of the military dictators.

In 1971, in his first presidential race, Kim won 46 percent of the vote running against Park. It was close enough -- a little over 900,000 votes short of a victory -- that he posed a threat. Within a month, a truck appeared from nowhere and tried to run him down in the road. He had a limp the rest of his life as a reminder.

In 1973 Korean intelligence agents abducted him from a hotel room in Tokyo and took him back to Korea. He was taken to sea and literally had weights attached to his ankles as they prepared to throw him overboard and be done with him once and for all. The Japanese, however, had pursued the boat and foiled the plan. Kim showed up alive at his house in Seoul five days later.

During the next few years he was sentenced to death, spared by diplomatic pressure (including from Pope John) and lived under house arrest. Finally, in 1997, after the military dictators had collapsed, he was elected President.

As President he instigated the "Sunshine Policy," a policy of engagement and exchange with North Korea. He said the name came from one of Aesop's fables, a story of the sun and wind having a contest to get a man to remove his coat. The wind tried to blow it off. The man clutched the coat even harder. The sun shone warmly on the man, and he voluntarily removed his coat.

Kim was the first Korean President to travel to North Korea, holding the historic summit with Kim Jong-Il in 2000. After decades of propaganda against the Southern "puppets of imperialism", North Koreans saw their leader and the South Korean President talking. The South starting sending aid to the North. Bags of rice started being distributed with South Korea imprinted on the bags. Families that had been separated since the Korean War were reuniting. There was talk of a train between the two Koreas. Things were changing.

The world changed. The US elected George W. Bush President. Bush, with unforgettable irony, called Kim Dae Jung "naive" and negated the Sunshine Policy in its entirety, marginalizing Kim. We know the rest of the story. 9/11. The Axis of Evil. And today, new missile tests and an atom bomb out of North Korea.

I had the extraordinary opportunity to sit and chat privately with President Kim in his suite in a San Francisco hotel a few years ago. Our paths crossed at events with the Nobel Laureates since.

Elegant is the first word that comes to mind. He was warm, with an IQ that kept you mentally running to keep up. And he had something that is nearly invariable in the Nobel Laureates of this ilk, the ones who have gone into the face of oppression, who have defied death, who have been willing to give it all -- he had humor.

We talked about my coming to South Korea to film an interview with him for a series we were producing. Today I couldn't be more sorry that we didn't make it in time. Because his is a story much more dramatic than most of what comes out of Hollywood. It's one that actually means something, one that applies right now, to the kind of world we can make -- with our action, and with our inaction. And it's one that should not be allowed to just pass with an obituary.