Since his death on Aug. 18, Kim Dae-jung has been celebrated as a "great leader." Delivering his eulogy at Kim's state funeral on Aug. 23, South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo called the former president "a great leader of modern history," one whose "sacrifices, dedication, and devotion allowed freedom, human rights, and democracy to fully blossom in Korea." North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's appraisal was understandably more muted, but nonetheless laudatory. In his condolence message, the northern Kim said of the southern Kim that the "feats" the latter performed "will remain long with the nation." North Korea even sent a high-level mourning delegation to Seoul, the first of its kind in recognition of a South Korean leader.
Kim Dae-jung's death comes less than three months after the suicide of his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, and amid speculation about the condition of the ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. These three men are joined to each other in history by the so-called Sunshine Policy, a failed, decade-long experiment geared toward improving relations with Kim Jong Il's North Korea that was initiated by Kim Dae-jung and carried on by Roh Moo-hyun. The three men represent an era, one that is more likely to be remembered for Seoul's misplaced aid to a totalitarian regime than for any meaningful advances in political, economic, or humanitarian issues in inter-Korean relations.
For four decades, Kim Dae-jung was a prominent figure on the South Korean political scene. In his younger days as the country's leading dissident, Kim was able to present to his compatriots a vision of what his country should strive to become. He was a powerful symbol of the country's struggle for democracy and human rights at a time when South Korea's rapidly rising material culture engendered greater calls for political freedom and civil rights. Then, as president from 1998 to 2003, Kim was able to restructure the country's powerful-but-overextended conglomerates and banks and pay back the $60 billion that the International Monetary Fund had loaned his country in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.
Kim will most likely be recorded in the annals of Korean history, however, not for his contributions to the economy or his efforts at advancing South Korea's political rights as a dissident, but for his failed North Korea policy as president.
Despite his pursuit of reconciliation with North Korea, when it came to the question of the fundamental rights of his fellow Koreans north of the border, Kim was unable to present any vision of hope. In fact, throughout his term in office, he assiduously downplayed the widespread human rights abuses in North Korea. Incredibly, Kim told an audience at a leading Washington think tank in March 2001 that the greatest human rights problem in the Korean peninsula was that of the separated families between the two Koreas and that his administration was making progress on that admittedly important issue. But on the far graver issue of the North Korean regime's systemic and widespread attack on its civilian population -- including the operation of vast political prisoner concentration camps where random beating, torture, public execution, hard labor, and starvation are brutal everyday realities -- Kim chose to remain silent.
Kim's presidency was capped by the first-ever inter-Korean summit in June 2000. His meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang was hailed worldwide at the time as the dawn of an era of peace on the Korean peninsula. The man who had staked his presidency on mending relations with Pyongyang was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.