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S. Korean president wins peace prize

Kim Dae Jung is honored for his efforts to make peace with communist North Korea.

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2000


SEOUL, South Korea -- Twenty-seven years ago, Kim Dae Jung stood bound and blindfolded on the deck of a boat racing through black midnight seas. His feet were tied to heavy weights; he was moments from being thrown overboard by agents of the South Korean government for trying to bring democracy to his country.

Friday, Kim, 74, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his long fight for rule by the people and for his efforts to make peace with communist North Korea.

Announcing the prize in Oslo, the Nobel Committee hailed the "moral strength" of Kim, who was elected president of South Korea in 1997. He has pursued his democratic goals "despite repeated threats on his life and long periods of exile," the committee said.

"Through his Sunshine Policy, Kim Dae Jung has attempted to overcome more than 50 years of war and hostility between North and South Korea," said Gunnar Berge, chairman of the Nobel Committee. "There may now be hope that the Cold War will also come to an end in Korea."

After entering South Korean politics in 1954, Kim became known for unyielding defiance of a succession of authoritarian and military governments. He refused to be cowed by years of house arrest, imprisonment and assassination attempts. After he finally achieved his goal of the presidency in 1997, he began a campaign of detente with North Korea that led to a summit with his counterpart Kim Jong Il in June this year, the first time that leaders of North and South had met.

The announcement that this lifework had won the Nobel Prize prompted fireworks in Seoul, celebration in Kim's hometown and the unleashing of Korean television documentaries on Kim that had been in the works for weeks as the local media anticipated his selection.

From the Blue House presidential residence, Kim issued a statement saying the award is "a glory that is due to our citizens' continuous support in the past 40 years." The statement added: "I share this honor with many who sacrificed for democracy and peace, and my family, compatriots and relatives who went through the hardships together with me."

The prize, which includes a check for $908,300, adds the weight of international approval to his efforts to reconcile with the North, which are under fire from critics at home. His challenge will be to convert the prize to political currency for his remaining two years in office.

There is a growing outcry that Kim is being too conciliatory toward the North, which threatens the South with one of the largest armies in the world. There also was whispered outrage at speculation that Kim Jong Il could be a co-recipient of the prize.

In naming Kim Dae Jung, the Nobel Committee did acknowledge his North Korean counterpart; Berge said the committee "wishes to express its recognition of the contributions made by North Korea's and other countries' leaders" to the reunification process.

Political analysts here said the prize would have little lasting effect on relations with North Korea or in quieting the rumble of domestic politics. "People will feel proud of Kim Dae Jung's achievement. He will receive respect. But the opposition won't change one bit," said Kim Sang Woo, head of a forum established by Kim to promote democracy in Burma.

Indeed, the opposition Grand National Party congratulated Kim Friday but also urged him to "eliminate suspicion that he may use the Nobel Prize to extend his rule," according to media reports in Seoul.

Throughout his career, Kim has been dogged by the paradox that he can be more popular abroad than in South Korea. Even as he won global acclaim as a principled peacemaker, he just managed to slide into the presidency in a three-way split with only 40 percent of the vote. His domestic rivals routinely excoriate him as heavy-handed, ambitious and anti-democratic.

The peace prize came both for his pro-democracy fight and his efforts to reconcile with North Korea, but Kim said in a recent interview with the Washington Post that his struggle against dictatorship was the greater achievement of his life.

"Democracy is most important," he said. "Human rights and freedom (depend) on this. Only when we uphold human rights and freedom, is our struggle against communism meaningful."

Kim seems an ill-suited figure to have led a popular movement that ended decades of strong-armed military rule in South Korea. He is publicly formal, with a monotonic speaking style. At the North-South summit, it was the reclusive communist Kim Jong Il whose personality shone on television.

But even his fiercest critics give credit to Kim Dae Jung's personal courage.

His most dramatic display of it came on Aug. 8, 1973, when he was kidnapped from a hotel in Tokyo by three agents, sedated and put on a boat that headed offshore. Kim has written in his memoirs that as he stood captive on the boat, bound and weighted down, he felt death was near and prayed to God for deliverance.

His rescue was almost miraculous. After his disappearance from the hotel, U.S. officials scrambled in a dramatic bid to save his life, privately but bluntly warning the South Korean government not to carry out its plans.

As Kim was being taken to sea, a U.S. helicopter suddenly appeared in the night sky overhead, shining its spotlight onto the boat and spooking his captors. Five days later, Kim was dumped, bruised but alive, near his house in Seoul.

He later dubbed the day of his release "my second birthday."

Kim has shown ability to forgive his tormentors. He pardoned former president Chun Doo Hwan, who had sentenced him to death, and has proposed building a monument to another soldier-turned-president whom he confronted, Park Chung Hee. Park had tried to have him killed three times.

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