Kim Dae Jung (1924-2009, president 1998-2003) was elected the president of South Korea In December 1997, on his fourth try. He entered the office as a 74-year-old man with dyed hair, cake make-up, a gravely voice, and a shuffling penguin-like walk. He took over the country right after the elections, months before he was officially sworn in, and worked to stave off economic collapse.

Kim was the first South Korean opposition leader to come to power. He was elected to a single five-year term. John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “At last in power, Kim faced a familiar set of problems in a system that, although formally democratic, had not yet significantly altered its underlying power structures, based on the big conglomerations and an opportunistic political culture deeply infected by corruption. The high point of his five-year term was the award of the Nobel peace prize, in October 2000, during the afterglow of the North-South summit” [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

Kim Dae Jung became president as the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis decimated the South Korean economic. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”,” Kim pledged to adhere to IMF conditionality and reform government–business relations in South Korea by increasing transparency. In 1998 and 1999, the government reduced the role of government intervention in the domestic economy despite numerous strikes by workers protesting layoffs. By mid-2000, Kim Dae Jung had managed to steer Korea's economy out of the worst of the crisis. The economy started to grow in 1999 and topped 10 percent in 2000, although economic growth stabilized at 4.4 percent by 2004. South Korea faced a steady unemployment rate of 3.6 percent between 2000 and 2005. In April 2000, the legislative elections improved the position of Kim's party, renamed the New Millennium Party (NMP), to 115 seats. However, the Grand National Party (GNP), successor to the NKP, obtained 133 seats and the United Liberal Democrats, allied with the GNP, won 17. Thus, Kim's objective to continue economic reform was imperiled. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: “As president, Kim worked to diminish the power of the family-owned conglomerates, known as chaebol in Korean, that dominate the economy and won praise for working with international financial institutions to steer South Korea through the economic crisis. He also worked to improve Seoul's chilly ties with Tokyo and struck a deal with then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to lift many restrictions on importing Japanese cultural products imposed by Seoul because of the bitter memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule. His priorities upon becoming president were for sweeping reform of four sectors — corporate, finance, labour and public — and to lay the groundwork for South Korea's emerging information technology sector. He also worked to further South Korea's democratic systems and promote gender equality. [Source: Jon Herskovitz, Reuters, Aug 18, 2009]

Kim Dae Jung and the 1997 Election

On the fourth attempt Kim Dae Jung won the election for president in 1997 with 40.3 percent of the vote. His opponent Lee Hoi Chang took 39.1 percent. He wouldn’t have won, many have argued, if the third party candidate, Rhee In Jee, didn’t run. Kim had earlier lost in a party run off to Lee but decided to run as an independent. The turn out was 80.7 percent. Kim ran as a candidate for the National Congress for New Politics Party.

Kim Dae Jung stressed his experience while his critics questioned his health and promises to add 2.5 million jobs and raise the per capita income to US$30,000 in a few years. On charges that he was too old to be president, Kim Dae Jung said: "In American age, I'm 71. But for 6 years I was in prison, and for 10 years I was held under house arrest and exile, so those 16 years should be deducted. Then I'm only 55.”

Kim Dae Jung had the political savvy to form an alliance with Kim Jong Pil, the man who founded the intelligence agency in 1973 that kidnaped Kim Dae Jung from a Tokyo hotel and tried to kill him by throwing him off a ship.

Kim publicly declared his own worth and forced other senior officials to do the same. Kim accepted US$2.6 million from discredited former president Roh Tae Woo and was accused of illegally stashing away US$40 million from former campaigns in family accounts and using the money in the 1997 campaign. The charges were quicky forgotten, when it was reasoned that all politicians did similar things.

The 1997 election took place in the midst of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis around the that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Eventually, it was not the powerful friends he made in Washington, and not even the unconditional support he commanded in Cholla, that helped him reach the presidential Blue House in 1998, his fourth run. The Asian financial crisis helped him gain the presidency, as South Koreans voted against the often corrupt conservative establishment that had ruled South Korea almost continuously since the Korean War. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

Kim Dae Jung and Domestic Policy

Kim earmarked funds for a memorial to honor former President Park Chung Hee, whose agents kidnaped Kim and tried to kill him. Kim insisted the move was part of his drive towards national reconciliation and forgiveness. Others saw it as a plow to win votes in parts of South Korea , where Park is still regarded as a hero.

Kim Dae Jung won the 1997 election as a member of the National Congress for New Politics. While serving as president he founded the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). He proved he wasn’t above Korean-style rough-and tumble, regional politics. He reportedly settled old political scores by using the national security services to wiretap his opponents and threatening them with tax audits..

Kim once said, "I have the ability to overcome the social, political and economic divisions in our society.” After taking office Kim ordered to release of 2,300 prisoners, cleared the records of 30,000 petty criminals and wiped out traffic offense committed by 5.3 million people. Seventy-four political prisoners were released but human rights claimed that 500 political prisoners remain jailed after the amnesty. He was reluctant to free more out of fear of angering conservatives. In December 1999, Kim Dae Jung pardoned 1 million people with criminal records and gave amnesty to 8,812 prisoners, including Woo Ying Gak, a North Korean spy and “the world's longest serving political prisoner.”

Kim Dae Jung as the Economic Crisis in 1997-98

After soliciting the advice of international financiers like George Soros, before he even officially took office as president, the newly-elected Kim Dae Jung floated the won, liberalized the bond market, raised the cap on interest rates to 40 percent, negotiated with union to make sacrifices and made enough reforms to encourage bankers to reschedule their loans,

Kim Dae Jung was able to convince unions, companies and government to cooperate to get the economy going again. He passed laws that required South Korea companies to be audited and required to them to obtain loans publically rather than secretly. He made it easier for foreign inventors to enter South Korea by getting rid of laws that limited foreign investment and allowing foreigners to take over whole companies if they wanted.

In return for the US$58 billion loan package the IMF insisted that South Korea get its house in order and this meant passing new fiscal and monetary policies, deregulation, economic transparency, bank reforms, major liberalizations in trade and capital inflows. It also meant allowing interest rates to rise, encouraging foreign investment and improving the structure and governance of Korean corporations.

Kim Dae Jung more or less followed the complicated plan that the IMF worked out. The government recapitalized banks, set up a public asset-management company to get rid of bad loans. Kim walked a fine line with the chaebols as he restructured and reformed them without letting them fail. He also lifted foreign investment limits in banking, real estate and stocks. Most foreign exchange controls were lifted in the early 2000s.

The South Korean government set up a US$1.2 billion investments fund for small- and medium-size companies. The top five chaebols were banned from borrowing from the fund. Plans to privatize the railway and power industries were slowed by strikes.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Kim reshaped the economy by cleaning up debt-ridden banks and conglomerates. But he spent most of his energy on building reconciliation with North Korea, carrying out his lifelong belief that South Korea could prod the North toward openness and reduce the strain of eventual unification by first promoting gradual economic integration with injections of aid and investment.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy

Kim Dae Jung proposed having friendlier relations with North Korea through his “Sunshine Policy.” He argued that North and South Korea could cooperate and live peacefully through step-by-step negotiations, providing aid and encouraging trade with the aim of "leading North Korea down a path towards peace, reform and opening through reconciliation, interaction and co-operation with the South".

The “sunshine policy didn’t push democracy reforms or human rights. It emphasized business and economics. The reasoning went that by offering economic incentives, North Korea would recognize the benefits of such a policy and allow more openings of things like roads and railways. Over time military de-escalation and the opening of markets would take place. North Korea would become like China and ultimately sometime in the distant future North and South Korea would be reunified.

Kim Dae Jung proposed peace talks, ending sanctions and met with Kim Jong Il. Kim Dae Jung’s critics charged that he was too eager to embrace the North and was used and taken advantage of by Pyongyang. They claimed the policy was based on South Korea giving and North Korea taking without anything of substance in return.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Once vilified by his rivals as a Communist, Mr. Kim flew to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, in 2000 to meet that nation’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in the first summit meeting between the Koreas. That meeting led to an unprecedented détente on the divided Korean Peninsula, which remains technically at war because no peace treaty was signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Under Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy,” the two Koreas connected roads and railways across their shared border. They jointly built an industrial park. Two million South Koreans visited a North Korean mountain resort. And in a scene televised worldwide, aging Koreans separated by the war a half century ago tearfully hugged one another in temporary family reunions.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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