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An Enduring Legacy of Kim Dae-Jung
By Carlton U. Forbes
Staff Writer & Columnist
Late President Kim Dae-Jung of South Korea

As a foreigner who has experienced both the Asian Economic Crisis and Korea’s post military governments first hand, I am among the late former President Kim Dae Jung’s millions of admirers saddened by his death. Over the years, I have come to regard the nation’s first opposition president as a democratic trailblazer. In the wake of his passing, one can hardly resist the urge to reflect on the life and legacy of South Korea’s most inspiring dissident and democratic leader.

Jim Dae Jung has certainly lived a life mixed with misfortunes and achievements. His profile as a politician and democratic reformer reads more like the ledger of an Odyssean. For his life was like an odyssey: a journey mixed with adversities, epic struggles, and monumental accomplishments. Thanks to his enduring spirit, and a double portion of the fighting tonic, his life has become a symbol of trials and triumphs.

Born on the small island of Ha-eui, his boyhood dream was to become a teacher. But fate had other plans for him. After graduating from high school, he started a small shipping business and eventually became a successful entrepreneur. However, his business success alone was not enough to keep him contented in a country ruled by military dictators. Seeing the oppression of his fellow citizens and curtailment of civil liberties by a military dictatorship, he convinced himself that he could do more for his countrymen by becoming a politician.

After three unsuccessful bids, Kim Dae Jung finally won a seat in the National Assembly in 1961. However, the National Assembly was disbanded after Park Chung Hee overthrew the Syng Man Rhee's government in a military coup. So Kim's career as an Assemblyman lasted only four months.

Evidently, Kim not only came to terms with his political setback, he eventually became a prominent opposition leader; educating himself by reading long hours in the National Assembly library. Once Parliament was restored, Kim became an impassioned legislator, and a prominent anti-Park spokesman. The more the government tried to shut him up, the more people listened to him.

Then, in 1970, Kim launched his first campaign as a presidential candidate, and won 46% of the votes. This gave then President Park reason to consider DJ Kim a serious threat to his government. Consequently, Kim was branded a communist, and marked for death. While visiting Tokyo in 1973, Kim was kidnapped from his hotel, taken to sea on a boat, where his kidnappers told him he was about to become shark food. Thanks to US intelligence officers who intervened, his life was spared.

If I were to summarize President Kim Dae Jung's autobiography, my synopsis of his life and legacy would read like this. "Kim Dae Jung has spent up to 40 years fighting dictators and military governments. He also languished six years in jail, another six under house arrest, and four years in exile.

For some time, Kim Dae Jung was a partner in protest with former president Kim Young Sam. However, both men went their separate ways when Kim Young Sam joined with the ruling party in 1992. In 1980, DJ Kim was falsely accused of masterminding the Kwangju uprising, and sentenced to death by the Chun Doo Hwan's government.

Kim has also survived five assassination attempts, one of which left him with a life-long limp—a constant reminder of a narrow escape from certain death. Then 1997, after three unsuccessful bids to become the president of his country, DJ Kim finally won the nation’s top office at the age of 73. His election as the country’s first opposition president” was a well-deserved honor for his tireless efforts as a democratic champion.

Nearly half his adult life was spent fighting for the principles of democracy and struggling to stay alive. But thanks to God's faithfulness in strengthening him in his hour of need, Kim managed to endure all the oppression and persecution heaped upon him. So accordingly, the late former president Kim Dae Jung will be mourned, missed and remembered for many reasons.

His admirers will reminisce on his political achievements, and diplomatic initiatives that earned him the world’s most coveted trophy—the Nobel Prize. His detractors will criticize him for his overly-obliging attitude towards the Kim Jong Il regime in order to ensure an historic summit meeting. But the world at large will remember Kim Dae Jung as a political leader who risked life and limb for democratic principles, faced insurmountable odds, and secured an enduring legacy. Not bad for a vocational high school grad. May his soul find rest in the great beyond!

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Carlton U. Forbes, who serves as staff writer & columnist for The Seoul Times, currently teaches Global English at Dongyang University in S. Korea's Yeongju City. Among the books he authored are "A Few Choice Words" and "ESL Teaching Aids." A resident of S. Korea for over a decade Prof. Forbes can be reached at






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