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Inspired by Aesop's Fables: Kim Dae-jung, S. Korea's Sunshine President

New America Media, News Analysis, Peter Schurmann Posted: Aug 19, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea -- To supporters, former President and Nobel Peace laureate Kim Dae-jung, who died Tuesday at age 85, was an icon of near mythic proportion, the man behind South Korea's democracy and the architect of its "sunshine" policy of detente with North Korea.

To detractors, he was by turns a communist sympathizer and rabble rouser who put personal ambition ahead of national interests.

An internationally acclaimed human rights advocate, Kim served as president from 1998 to 2003, a period punctuated by his efforts to heal the wounds dividing liberals and conservatives at home, and North from South.

More than a decade later, the lines of division within the country appear to have deepened and threaten to undo his legacy.

In a low-key ceremony marking the ninth anniversary in June of his historic 2000 summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the elder statesman inflamed conservatives by alluding to Seouls current president as a dictator and accusing him of turning back the clock on democracy.

The comments, coming on the heels of the suicide in late May of his liberal successor, Roh Moo-hyun, further polarized political factions within South Korea. Opponents accused him of cementing national divisions.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in politically isolated South Jeolla Province, Kim Dae-jung was elected to the National Assembly in 1961, just three days before Gen. Park Chung-hee seized power in a coup.

The event plunged the nation into a bitter struggle that pitted a succession of staunchly anti-communist military strongmen against opposition forces that quickly rallied around the charismatic orator from the countrys backwaters.

In 1971, after climbing the ranks of the opposition Democratic Party, Kim made his first in a series of unsuccessful bids for presidency against the incumbent and by then thoroughly entrenched Park. The campaign was marked by a near fatal crash that left Kim with a permanent limp. Park was widely suspected to be behind the "accident."

Kim would then spend the ensuing years abroad in self-imposed exile. In 1974, he was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel by a group of South Korean intelligence agents and carried out to open waters on the East Sea. Again, Park was believed to be behind the scheme.

They tied me up, blinded me, and stuffed my mouth, he recalled in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize decades later. Just when they were about to throw me overboard, Jesus Christ appeared before me I clung to him and begged him to save me.

After Park's assassination in 1979, the opposition leader was thrown into jail again, accused of orchestrating a bloody civil uprising in the southern provincial city of Gwangju. He was set free a year later and allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment.

Taking office as president in early 1998 amid an Asian financial meltdown that he described in his inaugural address as the the most serious national crisis since the Korean War, Kim successfully helped rebuild the troubled South Korean economy.

During his five-year tenure, he also attempted to bridge the political divide. This included the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission and an independent panel responsible for uncovering the abuses of former regimes.

But it was his trademark "sunshine" policy of rapprochement with North Korea that defined Kims presidency. That policy helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, but it also put him at the vortex of controversy.

Inspired by one of Aesops tales in which the sun outdoes the wind in persuading a man to remove his coat, Kims sunshine brought a period of reconciliation between the two Korean states. Critics argue it simply enriched Pyongyangs coffers and led directly to the development of its nuclear program.

The 'sunshine' policy has been, and still is, supported by the majority of South Koreans and the whole world, Kim said in a recent interview, deriding current President Lee Myung-bak for the present spike in tensions with the North.

Vowing a tougher stance than his liberal predecessors, Lee reversed many of the agreements Kim made with Pyongyang. Lee's first year in office that began in early 2008 witnessed the steady erosion of the very institutions put in place by the "sunshine" policy.

One direct product of Kim's rapprochement with North Korea -- a joint industrial park in the North's border city of Kaesong -- teeters on the brink of closure amid spiked cross-border tensions and the detention of a South Korean worker who was recently released after nearly four months.

Kims death marks the end of an era that witnessed the rise of South Koreas democracy from the ashes of war and dictatorship to a global economy and the fleeting promise of a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

And while it comes amid heightened animosity both within the country and across the peninsula, his legacy of respect for human rights and democracy remain intact south of the demilitarized border.

As for the North, Kim himself held firm to the belief that "justice may fail in one's lifetime, but it will eventually win in the course of history."

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