A few days ago, a well-informed reader and commenter on this site informed me that former President Kim Dae Jung would soon pass on, yet the time proved inadequate for me to work out my own internal conflicts about Kim, or “DJ” as many called him. Maybe Kim’s contradictory legacy just isn’t amenable to mutual reconciliation. Much will be said in the coming days — deservedly so — of DJ’s role in democratizing the South. Less will be said of all he did to forestall democratization in the North, a nation that is dying for want of a government that is accountable for its errors, crimes, and atrocities.
The great symbol of DJ’s legacy will be one act that symbolized so much else about his era — the illegal payments he asked ex-spymaster Lim Dong Won to make to Kim Jong Il, which he used to buy himself his Nobel Peace Prize and to accelerate a North Korea policy that not only failed completely to realize its stated objectives, but which probably extended Kim Jong Il’s misrule for a decade and, by extension, probably resulted in tens of thousands of North Korean deaths at the very least. The Sunshine Policy eventually meant turning a blind eye to the suffering of North Koreans in bilateral relations, at the U.N., and at South Korean consulates where refugees would be discouraged and occasionally betrayed. These things will be just one more source of bitterness that will impede the reunification process for decades.
Unlike his successor, Roh Moo Hyun, however, DJ’s legacy contains legitimate accomplishments and redeeming qualities.
For example, I’ve sometimes thought Kim’s election forestalled South Korea’s collapse into chaos in the bitter years of the Asian financial crisis. I still remember how bitter Koreans were in those times. Characteristically, they found a way to turn the bitterness outward toward foreign scapegoats — chiefly, the IMF for insisting on austerity measures as a condition of its financial rescue of the Korean economy, much more than at on the chaebol and government policies that caused the crisis in the first place. As president, Kim had such cred with the unions and the left that protests were (or so I speculate) relatively muted.
I don’t think anyone can dispute that DJ was personally courageous, that he put his life on the line for his beliefs, or that he made a significant contribution to South Korea’s democratization. Certainly he wasn’t the only prominent political figure who pressed for democratization, something that was probably inevitable one way or another given growing U.S. pressure for change. But in the course of fighting for it, DJ suffered more than other politicians of his time. The most dramatic example must be his remarkable hair-breadth survival after being abducted by South Korean agents in Japan, who had already brought him to the middle of the Sea of Japan, drugged him, and tied the weights to his legs. It may have been the bitterness of Park Chung Hee’s hatred of Kim that marked his transition from being a relatively benevolent dictator (compared to Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung, he certainly was) to an increasingly isolated and malevolent one. South Korea’s abortive descent into tyranny under Chun Doo Hwan was terminated in part by the massacre at Kwangju, but also by the combined efforts of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — through outgoing Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and incoming National Security Advisor Richard Allen — to spare Kim from execution on trumped-up charges.
Some (I would not be one of those) would find it ironic that Allen is now one of the leading lights of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
It’s less well-known, however, that DJ’s first close scrape may have been when he was jailed by the North Koreans in 1950 and scheduled to be shot. Then, it was the Incheon landings that saved him — the North Koreans fled before they got around to massacring the prisoners. If this vignette is true, it’s telling that Kim Dae Jung said very little about it in his later years (was the story embellished to give Kim anti-communist cred in the 1960′s, or was Kim’s silence just another case of covering for the North Koreans?). The North Koreans arrested Kim for being a “capitalist;” Kim had taken over the Japanese shipping company for which he’d worked until the end of the occupation in 1945. Like Park Chung Hee, Kim found his own accommodation with the Japanese and began his rise before their departure.
In any event, you would think that a man whose life was saved by the Americans no less than three times might have come to recognize the United States as more of a positive influence, but in his later years, Kim turned positively anti-American. Or maybe you forgot that back in 2006, he constructed this elaborate theory for blaming “neocons” and the military-industrial complex for the North Korean nuclear crisis:
“How North Korea will do with its missiles and nuclear weapons”¦ Those will be just children’s toys in front of the U.S.,” Kim was quoted as saying in the interview. [Kim Dae-Jung] also blamed Japan’s right-wing politicians, including Shinjo Abe, for exploiting North Korean issues to boost their popularity. “Shinjo Abe, certain to become Japan’s new prime minister, eventually garnered more popularity by attacking North Korea,” Kim said.
Kim said America’s military industry has enjoyed windfall gains by selling their weapons to Japan and others throughout North Korea’s nuclear standoff. [Le Monde, via Yonhap, archived here]
It gets worse:
Former President Kim said, “We give the United States everything to give, and yet we don’t hear good things. After mentioning Vietnam, the deployment of Korean troops to Iraq, the transfer of the Yongsan Garrison, the redeployment of the 2nd Infantry Division to rear positions and the KoreUS FTA (sic), he said, “Americans don’t talk about that, and ask why we’ve forgotten their help. [....]
Kim explained, “Refusing dialogue with North Korea, U.S. neocons keep pushing North Korea down a mistaken path while misusing [the North Korea issue], and this is because of China. He added, “Neocons, thinking of China as a hypothetical enemy, is expanding its armaments like missile defense (MD) and re-arming Japan”¦ It’s looking for an excuse to do this, and that’s North Korea. [....]
About Japan, he said, “You have to solve the kidnapping issue as the kidnapping issue, and handle dialogue as dialogue, but Japanese rightwingers are boosting their popularity by attacking North Korea”¦ North Korea should see through the meaning of the hardline policies of U.S. neocons and Japanese rightwing forces and do the opposite, but instead it keeps wrecking the situation by giving them excuses. [Robert Koehler]
DJ’s suggestion that those policies were “hardline” or “neocon” would later be undermined by none other than President Barack Obama, who continued and expanded North Korea’s economic isolation in the face of more North Korean provocations, and North Korea’s refusal to disarm in exchange for significant U.S. concessions.
Nor did Kim ever come to terms with the failure of the Sunshine Policy, its failure to change North Korea, or North Korea’s responsibility for destroying the crumbling facades it built at Kaesong and Kumgang. Toward the end of his life, Kim’s criticism of the current South Korean president grew increasingly shrill and distanced from the reality of North Korea’s refutation of Kim’s own legacy. Most bizarre was the juxtaposition of Kim’s accusations against Lee of “dictatorship” and “strong-arm politics” with his criticism of Lee for failing to censor North Korean defectors who floated anti-Kim Jong Il leaflets across the DMZ to their homeland.