On June 13-15, 2000 Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung met in Pyongyang and signed a historic agreement vowing to pursue peace and reunification. It was the first summit between leaders of North and South Korea since the Korean War in the early 1950s and the first time a South Korean leader set foot in North Korea.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Kim Dae Jung “best moments came in June 2000, when Kim Jong-il hugged him at the Pyongyang airport and escorted him through the Communist capital, where hundreds of thousands were mobilized in their holiday best to wave flowers at the visitor from the South.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

The summit was a cordial, uplifting affair filled with clasped hands, hugs and champagne toasts. The whole affair was carefully managed and choreographed by Kim Jong Il. One analyst described it as “a movie” in which “he made himself the star.” In contrast to Kim Jong Il, Kim Dae Jung looked stiff and befuddled. The summit was covered almost around the clock by the South Korean television (the first live broadcast by South Korean televison from North Korea) while North Koreans were largely left in dark about what going except for a few edited images.

Not everyone was convinced that something of substance was occurring. The North Korean defector Han Chang Kwon told the International Herald Tribune, “On the surface the two leaders may get along with each other but North Korea will never change or abandon its current policies.” Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung discussed sensitive issues. Kim Dae Jung didn’t reveal what was said but said the discussions were frank and productive and “raised good prospects.”

Kim Dae Jung was later given a Nobel Peace Prize, in part for his involvement in the summit. The South Korea leader told the BBC that he had wanted to share the prize with Kim Jong Il.

Details of Kim Jong Il-Kim Dae Jung Summit

Kim Jong Il gave Kim Dae Jung a friendly welcome in Pyongyang as he stepped off the plane onto a red carpet, amid cheers of “Kim Jong Il hurrah” by North Korea women in traditional gowns, and rode with him through Pyongyang, where thousands lined the streets waving azaleas. Kim Dae Jung arrived on the first legal flight between the Koreas (the flight took more than an hour because it had to fly out over the sea to avoid the DMZ. Kim Dae Jung had hoped to make a speech at airport in which he was to say “I love you all” but he was wisked into a limousine before he had a chance.

The summit was announced in April 2000. A month before the announcement, Kim Dae Jung announced in Berlin that South Korea was ready to help North Korea rebuild its battered economy. Secret talks to work out the summit were held in China. At the last minute the summit was inexplicably delayed for a day. At that point many thought it wouldn’t come off.

In a speech at a banquet on the second day, Kim Dae Jung said it was time for Korea’s 70 million people to heal wounds they had inflicted on each other and “chase away the fear of war from our land...The Korean people are one: we have a common fate. There is nothing we cannot do if we make steady efforts with good faith and patience.” At a luncheon on the final days Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung joined their aides and sang “Our Wish Is for Unification,” a song almost every North and South Korean knows.

Kim Jong Il was observed drinking ten glasses of wine. Even so he managed to show Confucian deference to the older Kim Dae Jung. On television, South Koreans watched their first lady Lee Hee Ho meet a former teacher she hadn’t seen in 60 years and watched North Korean school children perform a dance. Most surprising were images of Kim Jong Il — the reputed weirdo, evil recluse — being an outgoing, jovial host. North Koreans were probably surprised too. They rarely hear him speak and usually he shown mechanically waving or walking through factories.

Agreement Signed by Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung

In the agreement signed by Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung: 1) Kim Jong Il accepted an invitation to visit Seoul “at an appropriate time in the future”; 2) North and South Korea would solve the issue of reunification on their own initiative; 3) common ground can be found on separate proposals made for reunification; 4) separated families would be allowed to meet; 5) the two sides would promote economic cooperation and exchanges in culture, sports, health, the environment and other areas; and 6) implement the agreed-upon points through government-level dialogue.

Among some of the other proposals that were raised were: 1) establishing a military hot line between South Korea and North Korea; 2) reconnecting the railway line that once connected the two Koreas; 3) developing an anti-flood project along the Imjingang River, which runs along the border; and 4) repatriating of North Korean spies jailed in South Korea;

North Korea and South Korea also promised not to invade each other or make threatening moves. The accord did not deal with touchy issues such as the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs, easing tensions on the DMZ and how to formally end the Korean War.

Many South Koreans were skeptical about the accord. Reunification agreements had been signed before but amounted to very little. As a document the accord was short on details. The hot line was never set up because of North Korean opposition. A request to provide advance warning of military maneuvers was also turned down. As of 2002, only two of the 20 agreements agreed to by the two leaders had been implemented.

Kim Jong Il Took a US$500 Million Payoff to meet Kim Dae Jung

Later it was revealed that Kim Dae Jung may have “bought” the summit. Park Ji Won, his chief of staff, and organizer of the Kim Jong Il-Kim Dae Jung summit, was arrested of taking bribes and persuaded the government-controlled Korea Development Bank to give US$500 million in loans to the Hyundai conglomerate which sent the money to North Korea shortly before the summit.

Opposition leaders in South Korea claimed the US$500 million was a payoff to North Korea to go through with the summit. Hyundai asserted the money was used to secure exclusive business rights covering tourism, railways and an industrial park. The South Korean intelligence service admitted it helped secretly send US$200 million to North Korea. How the other US$300 million was delivered was not known.

Park Ji Won was accused of taking a US$13 million bribe from Hyundai two months before the summit. Kim Dae Jung’s economic advisor, Lee Ki Ho, was arrested on charges of persuading the Korea Development Bank to make the loans to Hyundai. Kim Dae Jung wasn’t charged in the scandal bu did publically apologize to South Koreans that money was sent to North Korea.

In August 2003, Chung Mong Hun, the chief of Hyundai’s operations in North Korea, jumped of to his death from a window on the 12th floor of the Hyundai headquarters in Seoul. Chung had been a major player in setting up the Kim Jong Il-Kim Dae Jung summit and was being investigated in connections with sending the payments to North Korea. In June 2003, the government stopped the investigation.

Aftermath of Kim Jong Il-Kim Dae Jung Meeting

On the whole relations between North and South Korea were slow to improve after the Kim Jong Il-Kim Dae Jung summit as the North increased its demands for economic aid while failing to fulfill the pledges it made. There were a few positive actions, many of them more symbolic than substantial. North and South Korea marched together in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics and North Korea sent a team to Pusan, South Korea for the Asian Games in 2002. Prisoners were exchanged. A South Korean fishing vessel that had drifted into North Korean waters was released and allowed to return to South Korea. In the past similar incidents often resulted in shots fired and deaths.

For a brief period there was a fascination in South Korea with all things from North Korea. Bookstores ran out of books on the North. Department stories sold drab North Korea-style uniforms and sunglasses. School children studied positive things about North Korea. North Korean-produced Samsung televisions were introduced. Polls showed that the majority of South Koreans had a favorable opinion about North Koreans.

There were also many negative actions. Days after the accord was signed North Korea returned to making anti-American, anti-reform statements while members of the opposition in South Korea condemned Kim Dae Jung for failing to make any real progress on meaty issues that divided North and South Korea.

Relations between North and South Korea deteriorated after the United States and North Korea began confronting one another on the nuclear weapons issue. Meetings of families separated by the Korean War were canceled, high-level government meetings were called off, shipments of rice and fertilizer to North Korea were delayed, North Korea rebuffed an offer by South Korea to form a joint North Korean-South Korean team for the World Table Tennis championships.

U.S. President Bill Clinton contemplated visiting Pyongyang. He was succeeded by George W Bush, who labeled North Korea "an axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech in 2003. In May 2009 not long before he died Kim Dae Jung met with Clinton and encouraged the former US president to make his dramatic "private" visit to Pyongyang.

Kim Dae Jung and the Nobel Prize

Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for promoting democracy in South Korea and his “sunshine policy” towards North Korea. The Nobel committee praised Kim’s “work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in east Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular...Through his ‘sunshine policy...there may now be hope that the Cold War will also come to an end in Korea.”

Regular television programming was stopped so the news could be announced. People who heard the news from large screen televisions in the railway stations clapped and cheered. “I felt my body electrified with sheer joy when I heard the announcement,” a 45-year-old construction workers told AP. Kim Dae Jung told the BBC that he had wanted to share the prize with Kim Jong Il. Kim Dae Jung has also won the US$100,000 Philadelphia Liberty Medal.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Kim became a symbol of the South Korean struggle for democracy and the dream of reconciliation, and eventual reunification, with North Korea. When the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 2000, it was in recognition of his struggle as a pro-democracy campaigner as well as his vision in overcoming five decades of mistrust and hostility to engineer the Korean summit meeting. He was often praised by his Western supporters as the “Nelson Mandela of Asia,” although Mr. Kim had a more checkered reputation among his own people.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

Kim Dae Jung and Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was a big supporter and friend of Kim Dae Jung. He showed up for Kim's inauguration in February, 1998 and agreed to invest US$100 million in a Neverland theme park for children in Kim's home province area and pledged an additional US$100 million for ski resort at Muji mountain.

Jackson helped Kim’s 1997 presidential campaign saying that he believed that “Korea is a country of warmth, love, sincerity, and complete innocence” and said he wanted to perform a charity concert there to help starving children. There is a famous photography and Jackson giving Kim and big hug in Seoul in November 1997.

Richard Pennington wrote in the Korea Times: “Somehow, in late 1997" Jackson “began a friendship with Kim Dae-jung who was running for the top office in South Korea. Jackson, financier George Soros and former U.S. trade negotiator Mickey Kantor took part in an international video conference meant to boost Kim's chances. "Korea is a country of warmth, love, sincerity and complete innocence," Jackson proclaimed with considerable grandiosity. [Source: Richard Pennington, Korea Times, April 24, 2020]

“Kim did indeed win, and Jackson was in Seoul shortly thereafter to meet with the president-elect. They had a press conference with handshakes, bear hugs and warm words. "MJ" was back two months later to witness Kim's inauguration ceremony. Photos from that day show Jackson in bright red amid a sea of Koreans wearing black or at least dark clothes. Before Jackson left the country, he pledged to invest US$100 million in a children's theme park in South Jeolla Province (Kim's home region), to be called Neverland Asia. Never is right, because it never happened. He returned to Korea in the summer of 1999. This was a short tour that also included a show in Munich. Before his nighttime concert at Olympic Stadium, Jackson offered to use some of the proceeds to benefit needy children in North Korea, Kosovo and Africa.

Scandals Linked to Kim Dae Jung’s Family and Associates

Two of Kim Dae Jung’s three sons became involved in sandals. His youngest son, Kim Hong Gul, was arrested for taking US$2.1 million in bribes from a businessman who wanted to get a license to run a sports lottery. His second oldest son, Kim Hong Up, reportedly received US$1.85 million from a construction company. Kim Dae Jung issued a public, formal apology for the behavior of his sons.

There were other scandals too. In 1999, a governor who helped negotiate the US$58 billion IMF bailout was jailed for taking bribes worth US$400,000 from a bank facing an IMF-imposed closure. A justice minister had to step down after he was accused of fomenting a strike at a government mint to discredit a union. The wife of a jailed tycoon tried to bribe the minister‘s wife with a fur coat. Kim Dae Jung’s environmental minister, an actress, accepted US$20,000 after a singing performance. A burglar stole US$100,000 from the home of a top aid, prompting questions about what he was doing with US$100,000 in his house.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “Within months his administration was hit by the first of a series of corruption scandals. Though his own probity was beyond reproach, all three of his sons and several aides became involved. The painful reforms needed to tackle the conglomerates meant alienating the blue-collar workers who would lose their jobs. Like previous administrations, Kim reverted to bail-outs, notoriously paying out millions to prop up Daewoo. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

“In May 2002, he resigned from the ruling Millennium Democratic party, hoping that by distancing himself and his family, it would improve its prospects. Within weeks, it had lost important parliamentary elections, and only South Korea's unexpected progress to the World Cup semi-finals offered Kim temporary comfort. On the day before the sensational quarter-final when the national team beat Spain, the president went on television to make a personal apology, begging for forgiveness for failing to fulfil his election promise that no one in his family would be involved in corruption.

Kim Dae Jung’s Later Years

Kim Dae Jung was 79 when he finished his term. He suffered from various health problems at that time. He was laid up with pneumonia and once was sent to the hospital with chest pains. He died in died in August 2009 at age 85 of “heart failure caused by internal organ dysfunctions" said Park Chang-il, president of Severance Hospital. Kim had been under treatment for pneumonia for about a month before he died. He was survived by his sons and his wife, Lee Hee-ho.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Kim spent his last months in office in a grim mood.... The North Korean leader never kept his promise to make a return visit to Seoul. Nor did he give up his nuclear program. Two of Mr. Kim’s three sons were sent to prison for corruption. And a special investigator with a parliamentary mandate found that Mr. Kim’s government had helped funnel US$500 million to North Korea in dubious business deals shortly before the 2000 summit meeting, fueling opposition accusations that he had “bribed” the Communist leader and strengthened his chances to win the peace prize. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

“Forced to use a wheelchair and shuttled in and out of hospitals for treatment of pneumonia, Mr. Kim spent his last years lamenting his crumbling legacy. Tired of giving billions of dollars of aid and trade to the Communist North but getting little in return, South Koreans in 2007 abandoned the policies of Mr. Kim and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, by electing Lee Myung-bak, a conservative leader who promised a tougher stance on Pyongyang.

“Inter-Korean relations chilled as North Korea tested nuclear weapons, first in 2006 and again in May, and as the United States, South Korea and Japan led the call for tighter sanctions on North Korea. The government in Pyongyang retreated into belligerent isolation after years of hesitant steps toward openness, though Mr. Kim’s critics have dismissed those earlier gestures as a mere ploy by the North to wring more aid from the South.

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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