MANILA — As resident representative of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for six years in South Korea, I was given the honor of meeting Kim Dae Jung on several occasions both as leader of the opposition and as president. Kim is internationally renown primarily as a political and economic reformer and visionary regarding inter-Korean affairs. He was, however, also a herald of the Asian democracy movement.
Having personally suffered under the brutal rule of dictators, Kim was deeply concerned with promoting democracy and human rights in Asia.
At a time when others were vehemently arguing that, for cultural reasons, that democracy was unsuitable for Asians, Kim forcefully spoke out in favor of the universality of the democratic ideal. For many years, the article he wrote “Is culture destiny?” served as a central point of reference in the so-called Asian Values debate. The fact that this debate has come to an end may also be attributed to the political achievements of Kim and other democratically elected leaders in the region.
From his many writings, one gathers that Kim is well-read. At the meetings I had with him, I was always impressed by his numerous references to other political thinkers.
“Since childhood I have been extremely fond of studying,” Kim confesses in his autobiography, “A New Beginning.” In one of the chapters from his “prison writings,” which consist mainly of personal notes written to family members during his incarceration, he mentions some of the authors he has read: the list is a who’s who of world literature.
Such intellectual sophistication is not a typical virtue among modern politicians. Kim therefore qualifies as a modern philosopher-king in Plato’s sense. For those foreigners interested in Korean affairs but unable to read Korean, it is a stroke of good fortune that many of his works have been translated into English. These worthwhile books not only give the reader a firsthand account of Korean politics in the later part of the 20th century, they also bring the reader closer to one of the great statesmen of our times.
Unlike many of his politician colleagues in South Korea (as well as in other countries), cosmopolitan Kim was the direct opposite of a parochial national leader. His years in political exile formed the roots of his international outlook. They influenced his political thinking and had a major impact on his presidential policies.
His foreign policy, to give but one example, has been multidimensional. Although a staunch supporter of the alliance with the United States, Kim was the first South Korean president to end his nation’s one-sided fixation on America. He has reached out to both Asia and Europe, earning great respect for his country in those parts of the world.
Always searching for lessons that were relevant to the situation in his own divided land, Kim studied contemporary German history more than any other South Korean politician.
“Standing in front of the Berlin Wall, I resolved to dedicate the rest of my life to studying plans for the reunification of my fatherland,” Kim said in his autobiography. Actually, his studies in Germany would later become the foundation of his epochal study, “Three-stage Approach to Korean Reunification,” in which he maps out the future of inter-Korean relations.
No doubt, his efforts to overcome the Korean division are the leitmotif of Kim’s presidency. In this field he has kicked off a historical process that — in spite of all the setbacks and complications — seems irreversible today.
Let me end this homage with a note on domestic South Korean politics. In my eyes, Kim’s five-year term constituted the first truly liberal era in that country’s history. This is not to say that there have not been setbacks and disappointments in the reform process. Some of them have been caused by personal failures and shortcomings; others were caused by the structures of the South Korean political system and society that Kim operated in, such as regionalism, hypercentralism and conservatism.
A single five-year term has proven insufficient to change structures and mindsets with a century-old tradition. But Kim has laid the ground work for a radical democratic transformation of South Korea. It is now up to the next generation to follow suit.
It is one of the ironies of South Korean politics that Kim is more popular beyond the shores of his country than in South Korea itself. Still, I am confident that it will not be long before a large majority of South Koreans venerate Kim for what he is: a visionary statesman who has successfully prepared his people for the challenges of the new millennium.
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