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This century’s last Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The honor caps a checkered career that includes adduction from Japan by intelligence agents, years of imprisonment under the threat of execution and, most recently, a historic summit meeting in June with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. President Kim — the first Korean to win the prize — well deserves it.

In announcing the award, the Nobel Institute said that Kim has played a “critical” role in starting a process of reconciliation and cooperation in the Korean Peninsula, the last Cold-War frontier. The situation in the divided peninsula is of vital concern to countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, Japan’s security will be affected should a military crisis develop in the area.

Kim has spent most of his life fighting for democracy as an opposition leader. During the Cold War he and his family were persecuted by the military dictatorship. Not only his supporters, but practically all South Koreans who campaigned for human rights and democratic reform suffered similar ordeals.

Branded a “communist sympathetic to North Korea,” Kim was twice handed a death sentence by a military tribunal. But he survived, supported by his Christian faith, personal luck and public sympathy in democratic countries such as the United States and Japan. More generally, however, he has been supported all along by popular hopes for a humane society. In this sense, the peace prize has been given not only to Kim, but also to the South Korean people.

Nine years ago, another Asian, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The country, however, remains under the control of a military junta, which ignored her opposition party’s victory in 1990’s elections. Many people have died for democracy and human rights, and the struggle continues in Asia and elsewhere. The peace prize has certainly encouraged these activists, but it has not necessarily improved the situation.

In Asia, several other leaders won the prestigious award. It went to Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1974, to Mother Teresa in 1979, to the Dalai Lama in 1989 and to East Timorese activists Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos Horta in 1996. Subsequent events, however, illustrate the prize’s limited impact. For instance, East Timor is still torn by internal strife. Here in Japan, the problem of U.S. military bases in Okinawa remains a thorn in the side of Japan-U.S. relations. Achieving an enduring peace requires sustained efforts. The peace prize is only a milestone on the tortuous road to genuine peace.

In South Korea, Kim has made stunning diplomatic achievements, including dialogue with the North Koreans. By contrast, his performance on the domestic front has been less than impressive. Some of the promises he made when he took office in February 1998 have yet to be fulfilled. This is especially true of his pledge to resolve the lingering regional animosities, particularly between people from the southeastern region, who enjoyed privileges under military rule, and those from the southwestern region where Kim was born. Anti-Kim feelings reportedly run strong among southeasterners who have been removed from key positions since Kim became president — positions that are now held by southwesterners.

Kim made the bold decision to visit North Korea while taking into account the strong anti-North feelings that exist among South Koreans. He once said it will take a long time to heal the wounds left by decades of anticommunist education and surveillance under an authoritarian government. Judging from his track record as a veteran politician, however, he should be able to build a fairer society by healing the wounds of past cronyism, and by putting the right person in the right place.

It remains to be seen how Kim will use his remaining two years as president of South Korea. History’s verdict will depend largely on how he charts his course while promoting inter-Korean dialogue and domestic reconciliation at the same time. It is hoped that he will not follow the path of those Nobel laureates whose crusade for peace stalled later in their careers for domestic and other reasons.

This year marks the centenary of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was not awarded in 19 of the past 100 years, including three years of World War I and five years of World War II. Kim’s winning of the prize, coming on the eve of the 21st century, is a timely occasion to renew our resolve to create a peaceful world.

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