Kim Dae-jung’s supporters call him the Nelson Mandela of Korea and, with the 73-year-old dissident’s epochal election as South Korea’s next president, the analogy seems more apt than ever.
In opposite corners of the world, Mandela and Kim have devoted their lives to fighting injustice. In South Africa, Mandela went to prison for opposing apartheid; in South Korea, Kim’s crusade for democracy and human rights caused the dictators he opposed to jail him and repeatedly try to kill him. When Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim was one of the nominees he defeated.
Now both men have been elected president of a homeland that was once bitterly hostile to them. Both represent the common man: an oppressed black majority in South Africa, the working class in South Korea. And both have cemented their places in history as people who rose from the depths of despair - Mandela in his prison, Kim from the decks of a ship, where agents of his own government were about to weight him down and toss him overboard.
“Because of his persecution, he is almost idolized,” said Kim’s longtime ally, You Jong-keun, governor of Kim’s home region, North Cholla Province.
It has been an article of faith in South Korean politics since the 1970s that “Dee Jay,” as he is called, could never be elected president, mainly because the solid core of voters who supported him were outnumbered by an equally determined core who despised him.
To his enemies, Kim’s moderate approach to North Korea and his close ties with organized labor smacked of Communist sympathy. Unfortunately for Kim, his archenemies were powerful autocrats. When military strongmen such as Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo told the people to hate Kim, the message sunk in. Those men built modern South Korea into an economic juggernaut by controlling the money: Capital was steered to favored industries and industrialists.
This time around, financial reform that limited spending - and the “media” age, which, for the first time, made television the most important campaign tool - helped lift the man from the backwater port of Mokpo in Cholla to the presidency.
“It’s a huge change for the country,” said Lee Ju-heon, 31. He said he voted for Kim because he was “a kind, generous man.”
In 1971, as a young congressman, Kim shocked the nation and scared Park by almost defeating him in a presidential election. Most impartial observers say Kim likely would have won had the election been fair.
The race was enough to set Park’s security services against Kim. During the campaign, a truck smashed into his car, killing his driver and leaving him with a limp.
In 1973, Kim was kidnapped by South Korean security agents from a Tokyo hotel, spirited out to sea and prepared for execution by drowning. He was saved by the appearance of a plane that dropped a flare, apparently as a warning. Kim believes it was the CIA sending a blunt signal. That has never been proven, but intense pressure from the U.S. government and people is often credited with keeping Kim alive.
Kim continued as an outspoken dissident leader, and when the Chun government staged a bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Kwangju in Cholla Province in May 1980, Kim was one of the first arrested.
Last year, Chun was convicted of treason for his role in the Kwangju massacre, in which scores were killed, and now he is in prison. Roh, Chun’s successor, was convicted for his role and imprisoned.
Thursday morning, in the main square of Kwangju, people tossed flowers and left a banner that read: “We finally made it, a transfer of power. We trust you, President Kim Dae-jung.”
In all, Kim spent six years in prison, seven more under house arrest, and 26 months in exile in the United States. He was banned from political activity until a government announcement in June 1987 that a direct presidential election would be held for the first time since before Park’s rule and that the political ban on Kim and other opposition leaders would be lifted. Kim and another key opposition leader, current president Kim Young-sam, offered South Korean voters a taste of democracy.
In the end, however, the opposition candidates split the vote. That allowed Chun’s anointed successor, another military general, to win.
After Kim lost again in a splintered vote in 1992, he planned to retire. When he changed his mind, many people said he was too old.
Kim fought off the charge by running a vigorous campaign. In a televised debate, he shrugged off the issue of his hearing aids by quipping that even “young President Clinton” was wearing them.