Kim Dae Jung Biography

Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, 2003
Kim Dae Jung, right, hands over power to his successor, Roh Moo Hyun, 2003. Getty Images

Kim Dae Jung's life story is a tale of adversity, courage, and triumph.  He was a political prisoner under South Korea's oppressive dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, and narrowly escaped death more than once.  Kim would go on to lead the democraticization of South Korea, and to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  How did a young boy from the remote islands off Korea's southwest coast end up as the "Nelson Mandela of Asia"?

Early Life:

Kim Dae Jung was probably born on January 6, 1924, although his official documents give his birthdate as December 3, 1925 - likely so he would be too young to be conscripted by the Japanese occupation forces.  The child was born on the small island of Haui, off the southwest corner of South Korea, in a tiny village called Hugwang.  He was the second son born to a farm family.

Kim proved a clever student, and his parents sent him to the mainland city of Mokpo to attend Bukgyo Elementary School from the fifth grade onward.  He graduated at the top of his class from the Mokpo Commercial High School in 1943.  

Kim Dae Jung got a job with a Japanese-owned shipping company after graduation, and the young man was already a shipping company owner in his own right by the time Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945.  When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim was captured by the communists and thrown into a prison camp.

 Sentenced to be shot, he escaped just before they came to take him before the firing squad. 

Entry into Politics:

After the Korean War ended, Kim Dae Jung grew increasingly concerned about the dictatorial policies of President Syngman Rhee.  He began to speak out as a pro-democracy activist, and in 1954, ran for political office for the first time.


Kim ran four times before he finally won election to the National Assembly in 1961; unfortunately, that election was voided by the military coup under Park Chung Hee.  Kim Dae Jung won seats in the assembly in 1963 and 1967.  As a rising star in the opposition, Kim Dae Jung ran against Park for the presidency in 1971, and made it a tight race despite Park's political machine and its scare tactics.  Park's security services even arranged for a car accident that was supposed to kill Kim, but he survived.

In October of 1972, President Park imposed martial law in South Korea and pushed through a new constitution, called the Yushin Constitution, which gave him almost unlimited dictatorial powers.  Kim Dae Jung was sent into exile, which he spent in the United States and Japan, denouncing Park's power-grab all the while.  

Kim was in a meeting at the Hotel Grand Palace in Tokyo on August 8, 1973.  When he stepped out of the meeting room, agents from the Korean CIA kidnapped him and drugged him.  They took him out in a boat, with his hands tied, a weight attached to his feet, and his eyes blindfolded, and were preparing to throw him overboard when the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force interdicted the boat.

 Kim Dae Jung ever afterward attributed his release to Jesus, but some reports indicate that the U.S. ambassador to South Korea had intervened to save him.  

Five days later, Kim woke up again in his home in Seoul, unsure how he got there.  The Park regime immediately placed him under house arrest, and banned him from any political activity.

Political Prisoner:

In defiance of the ban, on March 1, 1976 Kim Dae Jung helped organize pro-democracy marches in Seoul and also issued an anti-government document called the "Independence Day Declaration for Democratization."  As a result, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.  He served two years before being returned to house arrest in 1978.  Amnesty International took notice, declaring him a prisoner of conscience.

In 1979, Park Chung Hee was assassinated and Kim Dae Jung was released from detention.

 However, another coup led by Chun Doo Hwan plunged Korea back into military dictatorship the following year and Kim was again arrested.  This time, he was charged with sedition and conspiracy, and was sentenced to death in November of 1980.

It looked like the end for a man who had faced death at least three times before.  However, the United States and also Pope John Paul II asked the Chun government for clemency for Kim (who was Catholic).  His sentence was eventually commuted to 20 years, and in 1982, he was allowed to go into exile in the US.  Kim moved to Boston, where he taught at Harvard's Center for International Affairs as a visiting professor.  

In 1985, Kim returned to Korea despite his supporters' fears that he would be shot on the runway at touchdown like Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino of the Philippines.  The Chun regime placed him under house arrest once more, but his successful return heartened the opposition.  Pressure for real democratic change grew still stronger, forcing President Chun to clear Kim of all charges and order free and fair elections in 1987.  Kim Dae Jung ran for president in 1987 and again in 1992, but was defeated.

President Kim:

In December of 1997, Kim Dae Jung won the presidential elections with just over 40% of the votes.  He was helped by the Asian financial crisis, which hit Korea hard and caused public anger with the ruling party.  

Kim became the eighth president of South Korea; his inauguration was the first transition of power from the ruling party to its opponents in Korean history.  In a real sense, it was the beginning of democracy in South Korea.

As president, Kim pursued massive economic reforms, curtailed the power of the chaebols (family-owned conglomerates), and demanded proper accounting practices in the corporate world.  Within two years of the financial crash, Korea's economy was booming once more.

President Kim also initiated a new policy of detente toward North Korea, then under Kim Jong-il.  Kim Dae Jung sought to engage with the communist North for the first time since the Korean War, in what was called the "Sunshine Policy."  The high point of this policy came in 2000, when Kim Dae Jung traveled to Pyongyang for the first-ever summit between the leaders of North and South Korea.

 This approach garnered Kim Dae Jung a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

Kim completed a single five-year term as president, as specified by the South Korean constitution, and then handed power over in 2003 to another duly elected president, Roh Moo Hyun.

Death and Legacy:

Kim Dae Jung spent the last six years of his life calling for further rapproachment with North Korea, despite its acquisition of nuclear weapons.  He passed away on August 18, 2009 from multiple organ failure.  Amazingly, Kim Dae Jung, who had faced death so many times in his life, survived to the age of 83.

Although relations between the two Koreas continue to be tense, most of Kim Dae Jung's other goals have been met and sustained since his time in office.  South Korea's economy is among the strongest in the world.  Its democracy also continues to function well, with free and fair elections bringing in a new president every five years.