Books & Films Korean History Uncategorized

Don Kirk’s Korea Betrayed is changing the way I think about Kim Dae Jung

And unless you already believe that DJ was a closet commie, Korea Betrayed might change the way you think, too.

Kirk, whose research of his subject is extensive, describes in detail how in his early life, DJ flirted with a number of leftist political organizations and unions, some of which were also linked to North Korea, but none of those associations necessarily linked DJ to the North Koreans. After all, North Korean troops almost shot DJ in 1950, and only the Incheon landings saved DJ from the firing squad.

Later on, however, Kirk tells of DJ’s friendship, in much later years, with a man who was almost certainly a North Korean spy:

His old friend Jung Tae Muk had gone to North Korea on a North Korean vessel in 1965, five years after his release from jail for pro-Communist activities, had undergone some training and returned to promote the election of Yun [Po Sun] as well as DJ. Jung met DJ in Mokpo and offered election advice but spurned DJ’s request to assist in his campaign. [Page 29]

I’d like to know more about just what “promotion” Jung was willing to offer, but what “assistance” he wasn’t. But this is far from the most damning thing Kirk writes about Kim Dae Jung. In the next chapter, I found an astonishing passage that discusses the founding of DJ’s overseas political organization, Hanmintong, after his effective exile to Japan in 1972, citing a 2002 report in the conservative and anti-DJ Monthly Chosun:

Returning to Japan, he opened the Hanmintong office there with the financial and moral support of the pro-North residents’ federation…. Pro-Pyongyang elements joined Hanmintong with strong support from pro-North residents in Japan. Their priority, driven by Pyongyang, was socialist revolution. Through the pro-North federation DJ and members of the group received regular infusions of funds covering hotel, living, and trevaling expense, including those incurred in the United States. Those who provided DJ with the money “were all spies from North Korea,” the Monthly Chosun wrote of the investigation.

Wondering whether Kirk was indeed referring to North Korea’s notorious Japanese front organization Chongryon, a/k/a Chosen Soren, I e-mailed Kirk for confirmation, which he provided. Kirk goes on:

Kim Dae Jung claimed to have been receiving donations from relatives and in-laws, including members of his wife’s extended family, business people, and one anonymous donor who contacted him through a mutual friend, and he said he had a complete accounting of how the money was spent. Kim Dae Jung’s pro-North contacts had assured him at the opening of the Hanmintong in Tokyo’s sumptuous Keio Plaza Hotel on July 13, 1973, that “many wealthy people” would “be willing to support” the group.

The Hanmintong organizers were referred to as “Viet Cong factions,” although it’s not clear whether this was in jest, whether this was how they referred to themselves, or how others referred to them. These events immediately preceded the South Korean government’s kidnapping and attempted murder of DJ, thus elevating him from the fringe to a living martyr. And whatever you may say about DJ and his associations — knowing even this — DJ continued his political activities in the face of more persecution.

The association with Chosen Soren, however, ought to be a legacy-killer. The most charitable characterization of Chosen Soren is that it is a cross between an organized crime syndicate and cult. Chongryon used to funnel millions of dollars in remittances, drug money, and pachinko revenues to North Korea each year. It encouraged thousands of ethnic Koreans to emigrate to North Korea, where they were effectively robbed of their assets and put under exceptionally close surveillance by the regime. Japan tolerated this for years, but Chosen Soren’s suspected involvement in the kidnappings of Japanese citizens to train North Korean spies finally provoked the Japanese government to bring down the hammer and strip Chosen Soren of its tax-exempt status. But even all of this disregards Chosen Soren’s role in the financing the slavery of millions more, slavery that Kim Dae Jung conspicuously failed to denounce and did much to perpetuate with South Korean taxpayer funds, some of them transferred illegally.

Say what you will about DJ — the man repaid his debts.

Chosen Soren today is a pale shadow of what it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it played a major role in boosting Kim Dae Jung to the presidency of South Korea. But the idea that DJ allowed himself to accumulate a political and financial debt to such a repellent organization is a scandal — not just because DJ could be elected President in spite of this, but because those associations were mentioned in almost none of the reporting of Kim Dae Jung or his legacy.

I should note that I’m not even halfway through Kirk’s book yet, mostly because of competing demands on my time. By the way, if you live in the Washington, DC area, Kirk will appear at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to discuss his book on January 5th, at 2:00.


  1. Don Kirk wrote:

    Pro-Pyongyang elements joined Hanmintong with strong support from pro-North residents in Japan. Their priority, driven by Pyongyang, was socialist revolution.

    My ex-fiancée was a “pro-North resident in Japan.”

    I’ll have to read the book to confirm or refute my suspicions, but from these excerpts it sounds like Mr Kirk is just recycling things long said by the right, with the Chosun as their mouthpiece, about Mr Kim Daejung. I have no doubt there is a Pyongyang-directed group at work in South Korea and in Japan, but if we were the same as all the people we were associated, then that would make Obama a terrorist. When Han Duyul admitted taking money from North Korea, I was taking a class with one of his former “associates” who was genuinely devastated that about this revelation. Yet, by this logic, he would also be a commie, just like Han Duyul.

    Indeed, this sounds a bit like that kind of case, or the kind of case Bruce Cumings makes about South Korea starting the war.

    Anyway, I’m not saying this to bicker, just to say I remain skeptical. Did Don Kirk find anything new or did he just rehash in English rumors and rumors of rumors that have been swirling around the right for decades?


  2. All it takes to judge a man is to see the results of his actions. Did Kim Dae Jung weaken North Korea or strengthen it? Did he strengthen South Korea or weaken it? Did the banner of individual liberty and freedom from oppression, with a limited government designed to protect natural, unalienable rights fly high beside Kim Dae Jung or did he mount an assault on it?

    We don’t need to know his professed intentions, even those intentions that he fooled himself with, to see the results of the man’s actions. We don’t need to know how many times he drank tea with spies and known communists. That is, after all, irrelevant. The measure of a man is the fruits of his labors.

    Kim Dae Jung sold out South Korea to benefit North Korea and himself. He didn’t champion liberty, but the oppression of liberty, both among his own people and the people of North Korea. That makes him cut from the same cloth as Stalin, Hitler, Kim Il Sung, and all the great tyrants of history.


  3. Mr. Gardner,

    Can we please refrain from preposterous hyperboles?

    I think Joshua and other frequent visitors here know exactly what I think of Kim Dae-jung: I have devoted an entire op-ed to elaborate that DJ is a typical self-seeking, venal Third World politico who duped the West into believing he is some paragon of liberal democracy. Nonetheless, lumping DJ in the same category with history’s worst totalitarian monsters who exterminated millions and even tens of millions is too much even for this curmudgeonly debunker of would-be secular saints. Let us retain some sense of measure and proportion, please, lest those very terms of condemnation lose any meaning whatsoever.

    As for Mr. Kirk’s findings, they would be news only to those in the West or those younger generation of Koreans who have been saturated with pro-DJ hagiography of late. That is, allegations of DJ’s Communist links have been almost omnipresent in South Korea since DJ’s entry into South Korean politics.

    My reading of DJ–which includes some personal conversations with people who have known him intimately–remains less that DJ was primarily a fifth column, closet Communist (though he may have been) but a rather quotidian political figure. More specifically, he seems to me to have been fundamentally less an ideologue than an opportunist politician who understood that–as an outsider in a military dictatorship–his best chance to seize power was to present himself as a democrat and thereby ensure Western support. He was never a “true believer” in the Leftist cause in the manner that, say, Roh Moo-hyun may have been.

    Finally, I cannot exonerate American policy-makers for their role in the rise and sordid fall of this phony “democrat,” albeit the culprit was the famous American naivete rather than ill will. But please, tread carefully before anointing the next opposition politician as the next Gandhi or Mandela. In the least, understand that:

    1. there are few genuinely committed liberal democrats in the non-West but almost all non-Western politicians feel impelled to pay lip service to liberal democracy, esp. when they find themselves out of power;

    2. even if when the commitment or intent is genuine, those same “democrats” do not understand democracy in the constitutionalist or rule of law sense enshrined in Montesquieu or Madison but as filtered through indigenous authoritarian traditions;

    3. to the extent that there are genuine liberal democrats in both commitment and understanding, they will likely not survive if they try to follow the liberal creed to the letter (the case of the Oxford educated “true believer” liberal John Chang’s parliamentary regime in Korea, whose unwillingness to crack down reminds one of Weimar’s impotence, led to “state of nature” conditions and encouraged Park to take-over presents example par excellence).


  4. Sorry about that, WJC. If you make a comment and it vanishes, sometimes the answer is to e-mail me and ask me to check the moderation cue / spam filter.

    I wouldn’t compare DJ to Hitler, but a comparison to Neville Chamberlain is more than fair. Maybe this passage in Kirk’s book is more shocking to Jonathan and myself because it’s “news” to us.


  5. Joshua,

    I didn’t want to bother you with posting help, esp. during the day when you are probably occupied with something else.

    I do agree wholeheartedly that the DJ to Chamberlain comparison is fair. In fact, it’s probably generous to DJ, because DJ was likely motivated more by personal ambition (including Nobel hopes) than a genuine belief that the deal he brokered with Pyongyang would represent genuine advancement of the cause of peace on the peninsula.

    P.S. Now you are here, could get rid of the first of the double post? Thanks!


  6. Associations don’t make the man. I’m only two handshakes away from KJI myself.

    I agree with WCJ for the most part; I think DJ conned both sides as any successful politician would. Even the North probably thought they had the South all wrapped up when DJ was elected, but they failed to understand the checks and balances that kept him from changing much of anything.


  7. Did anyone end up going to the CSIS talk Mr. Kirk gave on January 5th? If so, I’d be very interested to hear about it.


  8. Yes, I attended, but it wasn’t more interesting than the book itself, so I decided my time would be better spent posting updates about the book. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to read more than a few pages at a time. I was also supposed to meet Don for coffee last weekend, but I was too sick to go. Too bad.

    If you have questions about the book, I can e-mail them to Don and post the answer in my next update.


  9. I see, Joshua. I haven’t read the book myself, so I don’t have any specific questions at the moment. Nonetheless, it’s one of those things I will get to eventually, as I consider Mr. Kirk one of the finest Western journalist covering Korea.


  10. For what it’s worth, here’s a piece I did for Future Korea, a journal published in Seoul, re my talk at CSIS.

    [Global view] Evaluating DJ`s Life and Legacy, Tarnished by Payoffs to N. Korea

    WASHINGTON / The Center for Strategic and International Studies provides a remarkable forum for a diversity of views on foreign policy issues. It is a sign of the center`s significance as a Washington institution that Victor Cha, on the national security council during the presidency of George W. Bush and a professor at Georgetown University, directs the center`s Korea program, staging events featuring a range of views. In that spirit, Cha moderated a talk on my newly published book, Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

    His comments balanced my own critical evaluation of Kim Dae-jung`s rise to power and his Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea.

    As Cha pointed out, academics at universities outside Korea are not aware of DJ`s unpopularity at home. Cha noted that DJ during the democracy movement was much admired for challenging the rule of a series of presidents, most of them from military backgrounds. Nor did Cha question subsequent revelations that DJ had authorized the transfer of at least $500 million into the coffers of Kim Jong-il before the Dear Leader would agree to hosting DJ in Pyongyang.

    Cha invited me to talk at CSIS when I ran into him at other events at which he was the speaker in Seoul and here in Washington.Certainly it is very difficult to talk or write about the career of Kim Dae-jung without veering into opinions and conjecture that are controversial.My book was originally conceived as a biography of DJ that would probably have recounted his career in glowing terms. After he won the presidency in the December 1997 election, at the height of the IMF crisis,it was simple to compare DJ to Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Lech Walesa of Poland.His victory, against the background of his arrests and imprisonment during the presidencies of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, was seen as a triumph of good over evil.

    It was only after the machinations that led to the June 2000 summit, and to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, became known that it became necessary to try to offer a more balanced view.
    My book attempts to recognize DJ`s role in the democracy movement, to explain the origins of the Sunshine policy and to let readers know the price that DJ paid for the glory of the summit and the Nobel.

    The reason these revelations are significant is that the enormous amount of money transferred to North Korea before the summit not only helped to rescue North Korea from famine and disease but also to pay for the North`s nuclear program.It would be easy to forget the payoffs were it not that North Korea, even as Kim Jong-il was hosting Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang, was aggressively developing its nuclear arsenal in defiance of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement.North Korea did shut down its reactor at the nuclear complex in Yongbyon even as scientists and engineers were busy on a separate program for developing nuclear warheads with uranium at their core.

    DJ had an equally glib explanation for why he never pressed North Korea on human rights, saying it was necessary first to bring about normal relations between North and South .

    Victor Cha, by inviting me to speak at CSIS, gave me the chance to embroider on these and other issues that are central points in my book. Don Oberdorfer, author of The Two Korea, who covered Korea as a diplomatic and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, has a more positive view. He asked me if I agreed that DJ had shown great “courage,”especially during the democracy movement. No one could deny that DJ was bold and courageous. DJ`s legacy, however, was forever tarnished by his willingness to countenance payoffs to North Korea. They would only strengthen the dictatorship of Kim Jong-il, providing funds needed to build up a military dictatorship buttressed by weapons of mass destruction.

    Donald Kirk
    Contributing Editor
    Journalist and Author

    January 20,2009


  11. This was posted before I began reading this blog but I hope Mr. Kirk or Mr. Choe sees and responds to this.

    I have been puzzled by the way that DJ Kim did (or perhaps did not) react to the North Korean attack on the Chamsuri 357 patrol boat in 2002. The attack, in which 6 ROK Navy sailors lost their lives, was during the World Cup, and unlike the Cheonan attack, it was clearly a North Korean attack. It was quite a personal slap to his face by the North Koreans by any standard, as well as an atrocity.

    I expected DJ to begin rattling sabers big time, writing angry letters, getting the UN to write angry letters, putting the South Korean military on high alert, having the South Korean Navy conduct a live fire exercise on the Yellow Sea, temporarily suspending aid to North Korea. That would have been the perfect opportunity for him to show off that he could be tough on the North.

    Even though none of those things would be helpful, it would seem the standard response for an opportunistic politician like DJ. DJ did the exact opposite. He actually tried to calm things down, and was criticized harshly for not paying attention to the families of the men who were killed. I never understood why he did not exploit that opportunity to his gain.

    Is there any insights as to DJ’s reaction to the Chamsuri 357 attack in Kirk’s book?



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