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Ex-South Korean President Defends Engaging North

Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung speaks at a luncheon meeting with foreign correspondents in Seoul in January.
Jung Yeon-Je
AFP/Getty Images
Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung speaks at a luncheon meeting with foreign correspondents in Seoul in January.

Down a small side street in Seoul is Asia's only presidential library — dedicated to South Korea's only Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In the library's theater, a film describes the life of "a leader who melted the hatred between North and South Korea with the Sunshine Policy and held the first inter-Korean summit, Kim Dae-jung." It also notes that he was South Korea's first president to take office in a democratic handover of power to the opposition.

Former President Kim Dae-jung and his wife live next to the library in a house with a tidy garden. He's a bit frail at 83 and bears injuries from five attempts on his life. He also spent many years in jail, under house arrest or in exile.


Kim, who served as president from 1998 to 2003, is still in the news these days, and his team of secretaries is busy ushering journalists and other guests in and out of his house. Kim has had to defend his Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea from criticism that it propped up a rogue regime in Pyongyang and allowed it to go nuclear.

As relations between North and South Korea deteriorate, the debate over whether to engage or confront the North rages on. South Korea had pursued a decade-long policy of engagement until last year. Now, the Sunshine Policy is being criticized and dismantled under the new administration.

Defending Engagement With North Korea

Kim was asked to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of former President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide last month. But the current administration barred Kim from speaking, apparently worried that an elderly firebrand could still ignite a political blaze.

Such attempts haven't stifled him.


"The Sunshine Policy has been and still is supported by the majority of South Koreans and the whole world," Kim says, sitting in his living room. "It's the reason I won the Nobel Peace Prize. People are telling President Lee Myung-bak to return to the Sunshine Policy, but it isn't clear whether he will or not."

The current president has made aid to North Korea conditional on it giving up its nuclear weapons. Tensions with North Korea have put in jeopardy joint commercial projects, such as the Kaesong industrial zone, which resulted from the inter-Korean summit.

Kim says that North Korea's provocative weapons tests and rhetoric are aimed not at Seoul, but at reaching an accommodation with Washington.

"North Korea wants to become a member of the international community," he says. "It wants to guarantee its security and develop its economy. If it does not achieve these aims, Pyongyang will have difficulty maintaining its legitimacy. So it may try a head-on collision with U.S. It is gambling everything, as expressed in these recent nuclear and missile tests."

Kim Dae-jung has criticized Kim Jong Il's totalitarian rule. But he also says that in person, North Korea's leader is smarter and wittier than many give him credit for. He says Kim Jong Il is now absorbed with engineering a leadership transition, which is contributing to Pyongyang's aggressive behavior.

"Kim Jong Il's health is apparently not stable," he observes. "Before anything happens, he wants to secure and clarify matters, and pass them on to his successor — hence, all the threats and blackmailing."

Voicing Support For Anti-Government Protests

Kim Dae-jung has recently spoken out in support of ongoing anti-government protests in South Korea following the suicide of former President Roh Moo-hyun. He says the protesters are dissatisfied with the current government's policies towards North Korea and a growing wealth gap.

"It's true that Korean democracy seems to be backpedaling. Some worry that our decade-old democracy may fail," he says. "I'm neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic about this. I feel a sense of crisis, but I believe our nation can firmly establish democracy and overcome anti-democracy forces."

Kim says his main task now is to speak out in public, giving interviews and lectures. He says at his age, it wouldn't be appropriate to play the role of godfather to the political opposition.

Yang Sung-chul, who served as ambassador to the United States during Kim's presidency, notes that despite the rolling back of the Sunshine Policy Kim's legacy is far more intact than those of previous South Korean presidents, many of whom were exiled or jailed on corruption charges.

There were allegations in 2003 that Kim's government paid North Korea to hold the 2000 summit, but Kim says an independent investigation cleared him of those politically motivated charges.

"In a way, Kim Dae-jung is the only one who has that kind of stature, knowledge, vision," Yang says. "And also he has a clear vision on how to resolve the Korean question."

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