Ain’t No Sunshine
Kim Dae-jung may have been a democrat, but the late South Korean president was no saint. His true legacy will be one of utter failure in dealing with his northern neighbor.
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.
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.
But the summit was later revealed to have been bought and paid for by the southern Kim with a secret transfer of $500 million to the northern Kim in the days leading up to the dramatic occasion. Facing public criticism and an investigation by a special prosecutor, Kim Dae-jung and his supporters argued that the payment was a "peace dividend," an investment in peace and reconciliation. Some insisted that it was a small price to pay for lasting inter-Korean reconciliation, a small burden that the South Korean economy — the 12th largest in the world — could easily bear.
What went unmentioned, however, was that the half a billion dollars in question was roughly equal to North Korea’s export earnings at the time. It was an enormous cash infusion for North Korea, one of the smallest and most isolated economies in the world. Kim’s cash gift to a hereditary totalitarian leadership that identifies as its highest state priorities regime preservation, advancement of its nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction programs, and existential competition against Seoul was an economic bonanza that carried serious strategic and moral implications.
The full effects on the South Korean people of such a dubious and dangerous financial transaction undertaken by their elected leader remain to be seen. But the prognosis does not augur well. Since 2000, Seoul has poured billions in cash and other blandishments into North Korea. In the meantime, Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests, two long-range ballistic missile tests, and multiple short-range missile tests, all while pursuing an alternate clandestine nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium. Pyongyang has proliferated missiles, nuclear technology, counterfeit U.S. currency, and narcotics. The regime has continued to brutalize its civilian population, trampling on their most basic human rights, while issuing periodic threats of nuclear annihilation at Seoul. Even in the heyday of sunshine, in June 2002, North Korea instigated a naval skirmish that resulted in the loss of six South Korean lives. The much anticipated "peace and reconciliation" conjured up in June 2000 seems today as elusive as ever. No wonder South Koreans, increasingly disillusioned with a policy of giving unconditional aid to the North, in 2007 opted to vote for the conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, who ran on a platform of growing the economy and demanding accountability and reciprocity from Pyongyang.
Kim Dae-jung until his last days struggled to snuff out such shimmers of doubt. Three days before he was admitted to the hospital in July, the former president told the BBC that his administration had never sent cash to Pyongyang but only 200,000 to 300,000 tons of food and fertilizer aid each year. Kim claimed that the cash transfer of $500 million was a risk undertaken by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai alone to secure commercial rights in North Korea.
Such claims are inconsistent with the findings of the special prosecution that led to the imprisonment of one of Kim’s key aides and the conviction of several others. Only time will show to what extent Seoul’s gifts to Pyongyang supported the latter’s stated "military-first politics." But what has been certain for some time now is that the generous and often unprincipled engagement of the North Korean regime by Kim and his successor, Roh, managed to deter neither that regime’s dogged quest for nuclear weapons nor the barbaric oppression of its own people.
The news of Kim Dae-jung’s death has engulfed South Korea over the past week. After a six-day mourning period, the Lee administration honored Kim with a state funeral in the National Assembly compound despite intense criticism from conservative groups. Hundreds of government officials, prominent politicians, and foreign dignitaries, as well as thousands of ordinary mourners, bade farewell to the iconic former president before he was finally laid to rest in the national cemetery later in the day.
The North Korean delegation, led by Kim Yang Gon, Pyongyang’s spy master, and a senior secretary of the communist party, marks the first high-level meeting between Seoul and Pyongyang since Lee Myung-bak took office. The North Korean envoys visited Lee on the morning of the funeral and conveyed a message from Kim Jong Il calling for improved relations. Thus, as the world pontificated for the past year on what possible change and opportunity might come in the wake of the demise of the ailing North Korean leader, it was Kim Jong Il who deftly made the most of the change and opportunity created in the wake of the death of his favorite South Korean leader.
The northern Kim is making the most of South Korea’s volatile situation to alter the atmospherics in the Korean peninsula to one that favors unilateral concessions from Seoul to Pyongyang, as Kim Dae-jung espoused. Awash as it is in the politics of death, the Seoul government will need to summon extraordinary resolve not to fall for Pyongyang’s trap. As witnessed in May in the wake of Roh’s death, or even 15 years earlier in the wake of the death of Kim Il Sung, the founding dictator of North Korea, the outpouring of grief upon Kim Dae-jung’s death has once again been powerful and pervasive. As in the past, the emotions expressed upon the death of a Korean leader have been raw, reactive, and real. And, as in the past, dissenting voices at an emotional and politically sensitive time like this have been shunned by South Korea’s mainstream media. In effect, the death of the former South Korean leader has turned the inter-Korean tide in Pyongyang’s favor.
All men are mortal, and each culture has its own mourning ritual. Koreans choose to wail over and decry the death of loved ones, as if mortality itself is unjust and the life of each dead person is one unfulfilled. The conventions of centuries-old Korean funerary rites leave little room for a sober assessment of the legacy that the dead leaves behind. Kim Dae-jung’s achievements are rightfully being remembered. His failings, in the current climate, are not.
Yet, history judges leaders for their acts, not for the poignant glimpses of their twilight years or the mournful moment of their demise. Time and temperament may erase the taint that ordinary men leave behind. But Kim Dae-jung’s presidential legacy, abetting a growing nuclear threat toward South Koreans and ignoring the continued systematic abuse of millions of North Koreans, is a mark that — despite his decades-long devotion to advancing democracy in South Korea — no amount of time or tears is likely to wash away.
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.