SEOUL — South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is more popular abroad than he is within his own country. This is the impression I have gathered after discussing South Korean politics with many people both in South Korea and beyond the shores of the peninsula.
The main explanation for this difference in popular appeal may well be that people abroad are aware primarily of Kim’s success stories and the sunny sides of his remarkable political career. Non-Koreans do not perceive Kim as a partisan leader, and are not hostages of the prevailing regionalism that is so typical of South Korean politics. Foreigners associate Kim’s name with his historical achievements in coming to terms with the North Korean regime, thereby creating — for the first time in decades — a chance for lasting peace in this part of the world. Many foreigners also admire Kim for his glorious lifelong record as a freedom fighter and human-rights activist. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a triumphant recognition for the many good things the South Korean politician has done in his life.
In the light of the announcement that Kim would be awarded the most prestigious of all international political trophies, another international prize presented to the president has almost fallen into oblivion. I am referring to the “Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Award,” an international human-rights award named after a late Norwegian human-rights activist engaged mainly in Eastern bloc countries.
When in late September the Norway-based Rafto Foundation announced that this year’s prize-winner would be Kim, the joy in the Blue House was apparent. But this joy was mainly of a calculated nature: Many deemed the Rafto Award as an hors d’oeuvre in a grand banquet in which the Nobel Peace Prize would be the main course.
Just a few days ago, the Rafto Award was given to a representative of Kim in the beautiful Norwegian town of Bergen. Ahead of the awards ceremony, the Norwegian Foundation organized an international seminar on “The Two Koreas: Sunshine Policy, Democracy and Human Rights,” to which experts from all parts of the world were invited. This seminar was one of the most interesting events I have attended.
Presumably the seminar had been conceived as an academic event to celebrate South Korea’s president as a champion of human rights and democracy. And there were abundant affirmative remarks and comments regarding Kim’s life, his struggles and his performance since setting foot into the presidential palace nearly three years ago.
But there were also more critical notes and observations, expressed at the seminar — remarks, which may not sound like music to the ears of the person we had come to Bergen to honor. While no one disputed that Kim’s “Sunshine policy” was the only realistic strategy for coming to terms with North Korea, participants voiced criticism regarding Kim’s recent statement in a BBC interview that the time was not ripe for him to bring up the issue of human rights in the North.
“How long do we wait before he raises this question?” asked one speaker, knowing that there was no clear answer from Seoul to his query. Another issue discussed during the conference and on the sidelines of the meeting was the South Korean government’s refusal to grant an entry visa to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan himself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Some Norwegian participants who obviously had not heard of this decision shook their heads in disbelief. Said one participant: “More than 50 countries that have official relations with Beijing have allowed the Dalai Lama in. I cannot understand Kim’s kowtowing to the Chinese.”
Probably the most sensitive issue raised at the seminar pertained to the state of human rights in South Korea. Everybody agreed that great progress had been made in this area since Kim Dae Jung’s inauguration. On the other hand, the expert of Amnesty International, undeniably the most respected human-rights monitoring institution in the world, left no doubt that in spite of that progress, some dark spots remained.
Not a few listeners were stunned to hear that the National Security Law had not been done away with, and that — according to figures compiled by Amnesty International and presented in Bergen — some 99 “prisoners of conscience” actually remained in South Korean prisons at the very moment Kim was awarded the Human Rights prize.
The scholars extensively discussed the political constraints on the president, the opposition by rightwing elements, as well as the lack of a sufficient parliamentary majority needed to abolish the illiberal law in the National Assembly. They concluded that the international human-rights movement should continue to support Kim Dae Jung, thus giving him additional strength to continue his reform policy domestically. The laureate deserves respect and applause, but the solidarity should not be unconditional was the general attitude of the meeting.
The Rafto Foundation stated: “Kim’s people’s government represents a step forward in the respect for human rights in South Korea. But it should be emphasized that more needs to be done in this regard before the country can measure up to international standards.”
In Kim’s acceptance speech, which was presented via video, the laureate proclaimed that he will do what he can to live up to the expectations: “I pledge to willingly accept my responsibilities,” said the president. The world will be looking closely to see whether Asia’s most prominent statesman will convert his fine-sounding words into political action.
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