At the moment of his greatest personal triumph, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung once again demonstrated his magnanimity. “I return all my honor to the people and the citizens of the world, who love democracy and human rights,” the president was quoted as saying after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week. The international liberal and democratic family is overjoyed that one of their torch-bearers has been chosen for this highest of international accolades. But — and this has been generally overlooked in these days of jubilation and euphoria — there are also some who have been disappointed by the Korean statesman recently. I am not referring to the partisan foes who, for party political and other petty reasons, would have preferred the prize to be given to someone else. I am referring to political activists who believe in the very same basic principles and values that Kim has championed for most of his political life.

A case in point that has been widely publicized in the South Korean media is Seoul’s refusal to permit the Dalai Lama to visit the country. It may be assumed that it is not a rejection of the main beliefs and values embodied by the Dalai Lama that prevents the government from grant the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 1989 an entry visa. Rather, Kim is concerned that a visit by the Tibetan leader may anger the Chinese leadership in Beijing, which he correctly believes holds one of the strategic keys in the overall North Korea strategy. The handling of the Dalai Lama case is just one example of how, in the world of realpolitik, political principles are thrown overboard for the sake of superior political considerations.

Another example brought up in discussions with Korean friends and colleagues may be found in the government’s apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to the state of political affairs and human rights in North Korea. Even though his political enemies have tried more than once to portray him as covertly sympathetic to the communist regime in the North, there should be no doubt that Kim Dae Jung has very little empathy with the dictatorial order in Pyongyang. Many pieces of evidence may be found in Kim’s writings and speeches to substantiate this view. On the other hand, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find any public statements openly criticizing the horrifying political conditions in North Korea dating from the time after Kim moved into the Blue House. Some Koreans say they are bewildered that their president is on the one hand engaging in political campaigns to promote democracy and human rights in distant Myanmar and Indonesia, while on the other hand he does not utter a single word about violations of the human rights of the Korean people in the north of this divided nation.

This rhetorical moderation and restraint vis-a-vis North Korea is an important element of Kim’s “sunshine” policy, which aims to re-create mutual trust and confidence on the Korean Peninsula after decades of hostility and verbal abuse. Obviously, the president does not want to annoy the leaders in Pyongyang. More than once, he has declared his government’s intention to avoid anything that could destabilize the communist regime.

Some time ago, during his visit to the United States, he took yet another step in this direction when he stressed that North Korean leaders need not worry that economic interaction with the South could pose a threat to their hold on power. Speaking to experts on Korea in New York, Kim challenged the conventional theory according to which economic opening eventually also leads to political liberalization, and finally to the toppling of dictatorial regimes: “There is a saying that many leaders of former communist countries in Eastern Europe were toppled because of the opening of their economies. I do not think this is applicable to North Korea and the other Asian countries, including China and Vietnam. These countries have opened up their economies, but their leaderships were not challenged.” Speeches like this be music to the ears of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

It is unclear whether Kim Dae Jung made this statement out of deep inner conviction or whether he said it in an effort to appease his new political partner in Pyongyang. It is true that China and Vietnam are governed by undemocratic cliques today. But it would be premature to assume that this illiberal state of affairs may not be successfully challenged in the future. I personally believe Kim’s apologetic remarks were diplomatic in nature, and do not reflect his true convictions. He earned his place in history, long before he won either the presidency or the Nobel Peace Prize, by convincingly refuting the argument that Asian values and democracy do not fit together — that, in other words, Asians are neither prepared for nor interested in democracy. Kim’s writings have been and continue to be a driving force for all Asians aspiring to democracy and fighting for human rights in their respective countries.

Last year, I had the great privilege of meeting Kim Dae Jung at the Blue House together with a group of young democratic and liberal leaders from the Asia-Pacific region. In his speech to the young politicians, Kim expressed his confidence that all of Asia — and he stressed “all of Asia” — would be democratic within 25 years. The implications of this speech were clear: Although it was not spelled out, everyone could understand that “all of Asia” includes China — and of course also North Korea.

Preparing for this column, I went through my files in search of references to the political future of North Korea following the process of economic engagement with the South. There I came across the following quote: “The ultimate outcome of these exchanges will gradually allow a market economy to take root in North Korea. Even political freedoms will go forward, resulting someday in a multiparty system and free elections. The prospect of changes such as these is not the mere fantasy of an idle dreamer, but a realistic picture of the future, evoked by the indisputable march of economic factors unleashing inevitable historical changes.”

This quote is taken from Kim Dae Jung’s monumental “Three-Stage Approach to Korean Reunification,” written when he was still in political opposition. Since moving to the Blue House, he has been extremely cautious in answering any question pertaining to the political future of the communist dictatorship in the North. But in the end, fortunately, it is not the political rhetoric of statesmen that directs history. Political, economic and social developments are what count. For this reason, cautious optimism is permitted regarding the future of democracy in this part of the world.

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