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Kim Dae-jung’s Role in the Democratization of South Korea

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President Kim Dae-jung waves at a crowd.
Former President Kim Dae-jung in 2007. Source: Middle East Institute website

South Korea underwent amazing economic, social, and political transformations in the second half of the twentieth century. This article will focus on the role of the late President Kim Dae-jung, whose career spanned, and for many symbolizes, the period of democratization. Kim was a persistent voice for democracy, economic justice, and reconciliation with North Korea. Decades before he would become president, Kim told an American journalist that “democracy in South Korea is inevitable.”1

In 1960, afer twelve years of authoritarian rule, Syngman Rhee, the first president, was overthrown by a student-led popular uprising. Many Koreans consider the April 19 Democratic Revolution as the foundation and beginning of the long march to democracy. Te new constitution provided for a parliamentary cabinet system, and Kim was elected to the National Assembly in a by-election in May 1961, just two days before Major General Park Chung-hee overthrew Korea’s frst democratic government in the May 16 coup d’état, ushering in twenty-six years of military-based dictatorial rule and continuous struggle against it.

Park ruled through a military junta until 1963, when, despite repeated pledges to return to the barracks after completing the revolution, he ran successfully for the presidency under a new constitution. Reelected in 1967, Park amended the constitution in 1969 in order to run for a third term in 1971. “Red baiting” and unbridled repression were hallmarks of Park’s rule. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)—organized by Kim Jong-pil, Park’s righthand man—was the principal instrument of political control. Supposedly modeled on the US Central Intelligence Agency, its powers in fact had no limits.

In 1963, Kim Dae-jung was again elected to the National Assembly, served as opposition party spokesman, and was reelected in 1967. Despite Park’s maneuvering, Kim was chosen as the opposition party presidential candidate for the 1971 election. Kim promised a welfare-oriented “mass economy” and guarantees of Korean security by the four powers with strong regional interests— the US, the USSR, the PRC, and Japan. Kim also advocated easing tensions with the North. A tireless campaigner and stirring orator, Kim drew huge crowds to his speeches, promising to restore democracy by ending Park’s rule. He presciently predicted that, if reelected, Park would become a “generalissimo.”

Park promised the voters that this would be his last run for the presidency. Park “officially” won the February 1971 election by a 53-45 percent margin, but Kim Dae-jung never accepted the results, and many believe he would have won in a fair election. This election firmly established Kim as Park’s principal opponent. During the May National Assembly campaign, Kim’s car was hit by a truck in a mysterious accident. His driver was killed, and Kim walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

In 1971, students, academics, journalists, laborers, resettled slum dwellers, Christian activists, and politicians engaged in widespread protests. Park responded with repression, exercised largely through the KCIA and in October issued a decree, putting the military in charge of public order with troops occupying the universities.

During 1971–1972, US-China rapprochement and related events such as the PRC’s accession to the UN Security Council, normalization of Japan China relations, and improvement of USSR-US relations prompted inter-Korean negotiations. On July 4, 1972, the South and North signed an agreement that Korean unification should be achieved peacefully through independent Korean action on the basis of a great national unity transcending differences in ideology and systems.

While pursuing an ostensibly conciliatory course toward the North, Park cracked down domestically and undertook a military build-up to make up for what he depicted as a weakening US defense commitment. Te July 4 agreement seems to have been taken in preparation for the next logical step, Park’s October 17, 1972, declaration of the “Yushin Revitalizing Reforms.” Te Yushin constitution concentrated executive, legislative, and judicial power in the president’s hands. Park held appointment powers for one-third of the National Assembly and the justices of the Supreme Court. Most signifcantly, Park could be reelected for unlimited successive six-year terms without limit by the Yujŏnghoe, a body he appointed. Park characterized this as “Korean-style democracy” and ruled for the next seven years through emergency measures taken under the Yushin constitution, the KCIA, and a judicial system that did not acquit a single defendant in a political case.

, NDP lawmaker Kim Young-sam (right) holds Kim Dae-jung’s hand high in the air during the campaign tour for the seventh presidential election in Busan. Both men are smiling.
April 10, 1971, NDP lawmaker Kim Young-sam (right) holds Kim Dae-jung’s hand during the campaign tour for the seventh presidential election in Busan. Source: ChosunMedia: The Chosunilbo, website.

In the US major newspapers, prominent scholars and members of congress criticized the Yushin system. Nevertheless, President Richard M. Nixon congratulated Park on his reelection. 

Kim Dae-jung was in Japan at the time of the Yushin declaration and remained abroad to advocate Korean democracy. Later evidence clearly indicated the KCIA was highly concerned about these activities and apparently “. . . had contemplated having Kim killed by hired criminals in the United States.”2 

In summer 1973, Kim visited Harvard University, and Professor Edwin O. Reischauer invited him back to do research. On August 8, in Japan shortly before his return to the US, the KCIA kidnapped Kim from his Tokyo hotel. According to Kim, he was bound and put on a boat, where one of the crew attached weights to him and told him he would be thrown overboard. Soon, Kim heard an engine, and the shout “It’s an airplane!,” and the crew ran up on deck. Shortly, the man returned, exclaiming, “You’re Kim Daejung, aren’t you? I voted for you in the last election.” As he removed the weights, he told Kim that his life would be spared.3

 Kim’s luck had held—he had narrowly escaped death for a second time in two years, this time apparently saved by US and Japanese intervention. A few days later, Kim, released near his home in Seoul, was placed under house arrest. He was released in late October. In November, Reischauer visited Seoul and again invited Kim; but a decade would pass before Kim went to Harvard. The kidnapping ratcheted up anti-Yushin activity and more government repression. In January 1974, Park issued several emergency measures that provided harsh penalties for any utterance or activity critical of Yushin.

 In fall 1974, the opposition focused on US President Ford’s impending visit. A group of American missionaries urged Ford to pressure Park to ease repression. Prominent Congressmen unsuccessfully urged Ford to meet Kim Dae-jung and other opposition leaders. The US-ROK November 23 joint communiqué praised Park’s leadership, but included nothing about human rights or democracy. In January 1975, Park announced a public referendum on the Yushin constitution and vowed to step down immediately if the vote were negative. All campaigning was prohibited. Kim Dae-jung and other prominent dissidents called for a boycott. After the vote, the government claimed 73 percent of the voters supported Yushin, but opponents declared the referendum null and void. A May 1975 Amnesty International (AI) mission to Korea reported that torture was widely practiced, detention without charge was frequent, criminal trials were unfair, political cases were fabricated, and human rights lawyers were systematically intimidated.

 Just as the AI mission left, eight defendants in one case the mission had judged fabricated were executed without notice less than twenty-four hours after the Supreme Court’s confirmation of their sentences. This sparked more demonstrations. On May 13, Park responded with sweeping emergency measures that prohibited all actions and utterances critical of the Yushin constitution or of the measures themselves. Violators were to be sentenced to “not less than one year.” For a short time, this decree silenced public criticism of the system. 

Park reelected himself in 1978. However, in early December the opposition party won a majority of the votes, but not the seats in the National Assemby because of Park’s power to appoint one-third of them.

Then, on March 1, 1976, in an action Kim initiated, twenty-one leading Christian activists issued a declaration addressing issues of democracy, economic justice, and reunification. They were convicted of attempting to overthrow the government. Kim was sentenced to five years in prison and his political and civil rights suspended for another five years. 

In 1977, new President Jimmy Carter was determined to withdraw American troops from Korea and to improve the human rights situation there, but he failed. The Pentagon, conservative American politicians, and the Japanese government all opposed troop withdrawal. The regime worked to influence the US government to mitigate its criticism of Park’s repression and to abandon plans to withdraw or reduce troop presence. Korea’s opposition also opposed troop withdrawal with Kim Dae-jung, arguing it would be irresponsible and immoral for the US to withdraw its troops “. . . while Park Chung-hee has his foot on our throats.” The National Council of Churches of Korea, the organization of families of political prisoners, and others agreed with Kim. 

Park reelected himself in 1978. However, in early December the opposition party won a majority of the votes, but not the seats in the National Assembly because of Park’s power to appoint one-third of them. On his inauguration day, Park suspended Kim Dae-jung’s sentence but placed him under house arrest. Now, Kim could not be so tightly controlled and his influence remained strong enough to assure that Kim Young-sam was elected leader of the opposition party in May 1979. Carter’s state visit to South Korea in June 1979 clearly demonstrated that his human rights policy had failed. He met some prominent opposition leaders but not Kim Dae-jung, still under house arrest. The ensuing US-Korean joint communiqué included only generalities about internationally recognized human rights.4

By Carter’s visit, the Yushin system had reached a terminal stage. The government party and Park’s appointed members expelled Kim Young-sam from the National Assembly because of his repeated calls to end Yushin. After almost seven years of Yushin, Pusan, Kim Young-sam’s electoral district, exploded on October 16 and 17, with tens of thousands of citizens destroying police stations and vehicles, government buildings, and mass communications facilities. When Park declared martial law in Pusan on October 18, Park immediately sent troops into Masan after it erupted. 

On October 26, 1979, apparently because of a mounting dispute over handling the crisis, KCIA Director Kim Jae-kyu shot and killed Park during an inner circle drinking party. Park’s death precipitated the end of Yushin. Martial law was declared, and Major General Chun Doo-hwan, chief of the Army Security Command, took charge of the assassination investigation. Acting President Choi Kyu-ha was quickly elected president under the Yushin constitution and on December 8 eased repression and freed Kim Dae-jung from house arrest. Kim was free for the first time in three and a half years, but his political and civil rights remained suspended until his 1980 amnesty. 

Kim Dae-jung, whose life sentence had been reduced to twenty years early in 1982, was suddenly released on December 23, 1982, and against his wishes, exiled to the US.

On the night of December 12, 1979, without authorization, Chun used US-ROK Combined Command troops to stage an intra- army coup. The commander, General John Wickham, reportedly furious at this chain of command violation, went to Washington for consultations, but the US government reacted with silence to Chun’s first big step on the way to taking power.

At first during the post-Park assassination “Seoul Spring,” the people enthusiastically expressed their desire for a more democratic Korea with numerous proposals for constitutional revision. One poll showed that Koreans overwhelmingly felt that democratization was more important than the economy and that they could sustain a democracy. In the spring of 1980, students demonstrating on campus for an end to martial law, Chun’s dismissal, a new constitution, and early elections with direct election of the president announced pending street action if martial law were not lifted by May 15. When nothing happened, approximately 100,000 demonstrated in downtown Seoul. When the prime minister appealed for time to consider their demands, students returned to their campuses. On May 16, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam held a joint press conference, echoing the students’ demands.

Then, on May 17, Chun declared a fuller form of martial law, prohibited political activity, dissolved the National Assembly, imposed media censorship, closed the universities, and banned strikes. There were many arrests. Kim Young-sam was placed under house arrest. After only two and a half months of freedom, Kim Dae-jung was again detained. When demonstrations began on May 18 in Kwangju, capital of Kim Dae-jung’s home province, Chun sent in paratroopers who brutally attacked the demonstrators, allegedly bayoneting some to death, until enraged citizens drove them out. Chun, with permission from the Combined Command, sent regular troops to retake the city ten days later. The official death toll was 191, but the people of Kwangju believe it much higher, and some scholars argue that it was closer to 2,000. It is clear, despite official denials at the time and later, that the Carter administration knew in advance of these plans, including possible use of paratroopers.5

Subsequently, Chun conducted a series of “purification” drives. More than 800 politicians were banned from political activity; thousands of officials purged; publishing licenses of 172 periodicals revoked; nearly 700 journalists fired; the news media forcibly reorganized; hundreds of professors dismissed; thousands of students expelled, prosecuted, or drafted into the military; and 37,000 “hoodlums” sent to military reeducation camps. 

In early August, an unnamed senior US military officer reportedly said that the US would support Chun Doo-hwan as the next president and added, “I’m not sure democracy the way we understand it is ready for Korea or the Koreans ready for it. . . . Korea seems to need a strong leader. . . . And lemming-like, the [Koreans] are kind of lining up behind him. . . .”6 The next day, Chun identified the officer as General Wickham.7 Shortly thereafter, Chun resigned from the army and on August 27 elected himself president under the Yushin constitution. 

After weeks of harsh interrogation, Kim Dae-jung and his twenty-three codefendants were tried. Convicted on September 17, 1980, of plotting rebellion, attempting to put himself in power, and instigating the Kwangju Uprising, Kim was sentenced to death and the other twenty-three to terms ranging from two to twenty years. 

The Carter administration expressed its “intense interest and deep concern” for Kim’s fate. Moreover, during the 1980 presidential campaign, the danger to Kim’s life was greatly reduced when Ronald Reagan indicated that, if elected, he too would react strongly. In a deal to save Kim’s life, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in late January 1981, one day after an announcement that Chun would be the first foreign head of state to be received by the newly inaugurated President Reagan. On February 25, soon after meeting Reagan, Chun in effect elected himself president under the new constitution, with 90 percent of the votes of his hand-picked, 5,000-member electoral college. 

Kim Dae-jung, whose life sentence had been reduced to twenty years early in 1982, was suddenly released on December 23, 1982 and against his wishes, exiled to the US. Upon his arrival at Washington, DC, Kim declared his intention to return to Korea to work for the restoration of democracy and for Korean unification. He demanded that the Chun regime release all political prisoners and thanked the American people, President Reagan, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy for their efforts on his behalf. In the ensuing months, Kim gave many speeches and interacted with politicians, human rights activists, and advocates for Korean democracy. On August 15, known as Liberation Day, he and Kim Young-sam issued a joint statement calling for democratization. In the fall of 1983, Kim took up residence at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and during the year published two books. Working on speeches and projects with the Kims, I was interested to see that he and his wife, Madame Lee Hee-ho, were really partners. Madame Lee was perhaps his closest adviser. At the end of the academic year, Kim and his family moved to Washington, DC, where he continued his active lifestyle. 

Then, on February 8, 1985, despite opposition from the Chun government and against the urging of friends and supporters concerned for his safety, Kim returned home, accompanied by thirty-seven supporters, including Pat Derian—Carter’s former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights—two congressmen, and a number of other prominent Americans. Upon arrival, many of his traveling companions were roughed up by the KCIA, while Kim and his wife, kept from the crowds gathered to welcome them, were driven straight home, where he would spend months under house arrest. 

Starting in 1982, Chun gradually lifted the restrictions on political activity. By 1985, after hundreds of politicians were freed from the ban, only fourteen, including the “Three Kims”—Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil—were still banned. The politicians, freed less than a month before the February 1985 National Assembly election, organized a new party and campaigned for constitutional revision to provide for direct presidential elections and guarantees of civil and labor rights. Campaigning was tightly restricted. Use of terms such as “dictator” was prohibited. The newly returned Kim Dae-jung was kept out of public view under house arrest. Although campaigning was limited, public interest ran high. 

In a stunning defeat for Chun, the government won only 35 percent of the popular vote and eighty-seven of 184 directly elected seats. The opposition claimed a popular mandate. Nevertheless, the rules for allocating the proportional seats were such that the government party got sixty-one of the ninety-two seats, giving it a narrow majority. After the election, Chun lifted the ban on the remaining fourteen politicians, including the Three Kims. However, Kim Dae-jung’s political and civil rights were still not restored because only the execution of his sentence was suspended. 

The much-strengthened opposition demanded the restoration of Kim Dae-jung’s rights, the release of all prisoners of conscience, and revision of the constitution and laws governing civil rights and the direct election of the president. The government refused to consider amending the constitution. It also maintained that it was too early to restore Kim’s rights and, moreover, to do so would require an act of contrition on his part. A climax came when plainclothes police were stationed around Kim’s house to prevent him from attending the opposition party’s August 1985 convention. Chun’s consistent response to the public’s demands for democracy was repression. More than a thousand student activists were expelled between May 1980 and mid-1984. Torture was routinely used to gather information and to intimidate. Hundreds were imprisoned for political reasons. 

As the 1987 presidential election approached, popular demand for the direct election of the president swelled. Many felt that, without fundamental reforms, an explosion of popular outrage was probable. Since the 1980 constitution allowed only one seven-year presidential term, it was commonly believed that Chun intended to have himself succeeded by his right-hand man, former General Roh Tae-woo, while Chun would act as regent as the chair of his personal foundation established with substantial funds extracted from the chaebŏl conglomerates.

On January 14, 1987, Pak Chong-ch’ŏl, a Seoul National University student, was waterboarded to death during police interrogation. After briefly attempting a cover-up, the authorities had to admit what had happened. In reaction, students began daily demonstrations. Gradually, other citizens joined until by June, there were half a million demonstrators on the streets of Seoul daily. 

On April 13, Chun, in the name of defending his constitution, declared an end to debate on amendments. The public reacted strongly. As demonstrations continued through May, rumors circulated that Chun might issue an emergency decree and/or deploy troops. On June 9, during a campus demonstration, Yi Han-yŏl, a Yonsei University student, was mortally wounded when a tear gas canister hit his head. This event provoked further demonstrations, and on June 10, when the government party nominated Roh Taewoo as its presidential candidate, the city exploded. Nationwide demonstrations went on for days with ever-increasing public participation. These, the largest demonstrations since the 1919 Independence Movement, peaked on June 26, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators confronted tens of thousands of riot police.

In the midst of this turmoil, Gaston Sigur, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arrived, hoping to defuse the crisis. He met with Chun and Roh. He also met Kim Young-sam and, most significantly, on June 24, called on Kim Daejung, who was still under house arrest. Kim was freed that night at midnight. Sigur said to the press, “Our position is crystal-clear We oppose martial law. . . . Any use of armed forces is unwarranted.”8 Chun and Roh must have recalled that Reagan had not lifted a finger to prevent the overthrow of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. 

Reflecting Korean experience with presidents extending their stays in office, the constitution, still in effect today, limits the president to one five-year term.

On June 29, Chun yielded and deputed Roh Tae-woo to publically pledge prompt constitutional and campaign law revision, a direct presidential election before February 1988, restoration of Kim Dae-jung’s civil and political rights, release of political prisoners, and effective guarantees of basic constitutional rights. The Korean people had made enormous strides toward democracy. A newly revised constitution, providing for direct election of the president, was approved overwhelmingly on October 23. Reflecting Korean experience with presidents extending their stays in office, the constitution, still in effect today, limits the president to one five-year term. 

There were three major candidates for the December 16, 1987, presidential election: Roh Tae-woo, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Youngsam. The two Kims split the opposition vote, and Roh won with a plurality of 37 percent. Many voters believed opposition claims of election fraud, but, because the Kims had split the opposition vote, most accepted the result. Roh Tae-woo’s administration, while less repressive than those of Park and Chun, was quite authoritarian as indicated by the fact that there were nearly 1,400 political prisoners at the end of July 1990.9

In the April 1988 National Assembly election, Roh’s government party got only 34 percent of the votes and 125 out of 259 seats, lacking a majority. Of the nongovernment parties, Kim Dae-jung’s was the largest, Kim Young-sam’s second, and Kim Jong-pil’s the smallest. When Kim Dae-jung resisted Roh’s attempt at co-option, Roh, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil merged their parties, locking in the minority status of Kim Dae-jung and his home Chŏlla provinces. Roh’s hand was somewhat strengthened in the National Assembly and Kim Young-sam’s position greatly improved for the next presidential election. 

Opposition parties and the major news media welcomed Roh’s early July 1988 statement indicating willingness to negotiate with the North. Then, after the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Russia and South Korea established diplomatic relations. In December 1991, the North and South signed nonaggression and reconciliation agreements, as well as an agreement on peninsula denuclearization. In 1992, South Korea and the PRC established diplomatic relations. 

While negotiating with the North, Roh dealt harshly with critics who advocated positions on inter-Korean relations different from his. In May 1988, sixty-seven organizations, largely religious, came out in support of Kim Dae-jung’s earlier suggestion that the South and North hold the 1988 Olympics jointly and of a proposal to hold a South-North students conference on June 10 at the Panmunjom truce village. When students took to the streets to support these proposals, they were harshly suppressed. When Reverend Moon Ikhwan and others made unsanctioned visits to the North to attempt to improve relations, Roh established a joint security investigation headquarters and took strong measures against them. Moon was sentenced to five years in prison.

In June 2000, Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il held a two-day meeting in P’yŏngyang, the first inter- Korean summit ever. . .

Former president of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung holds Kim Jong Il's hand in the air in a show of solidarity. Photo taken in 2000.
Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il in P’yŏngyang, August 2000.

In May 1992, Kim Dae-jung was nominated the opposition party’s candidate for the December 18 presidential election. However, Kim lost to his old partner/rival, Kim Young-sam, and the next day announced his retirement from politics. In January, he went to England to spend six months as a Cambridge University visiting scholar. Kim Young-sam’s election was a democratic victory of sorts. As part of the democracy movement for decades, Kim was the first civilian to become president in his own right in over thirty years. However, with the merger, he had won as the government party’s candidate. Far more of a Democrat than the three military men who preceded him, Kim brought the military under tighter civilian control and amnestied hundreds of political prisoners. He conducted an anticorruption campaign with mixed success. In August 1996, Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death and Roh Tae-woo to twenty-two and a half years for treason, mutiny, and corruption. On appeal, these sentences were reduced to life and seventeen years respectively.

 It was no great surprise in 1997 when Kim Dae-jung, a professional politician, again declared his presidential candidacy. While committed to democracy, single-minded, and indefatigable, Kim was still a political realist. In October, he agreed with Kim Jong-pil, the perennial number two in various political configurations, to be the candidate of both their parties. 

At long last, on December 18, 1997, Kim Dae-jung was elected president. He won in part because of his alliance with Kim Jong-pil, but also because South Korea had changed: It was now a democracy. And Kim stuck to his basic principles. Through years of harassment, banning, house arrest, imprisonment, exile, kidnapping, assassination attempts, and a death sentence, he resourcefully and persistently pursued democracy, economic justice, and reconciliation with the North. He was lucky to have narrowly escaped death—the fate of some opponents of the Rhee and Park regimes—at the hands of Park and Chun.

Kim’s historic victory marked South Korea’s first peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected opponent. Kim was also the first president from the long discriminated against southwestern Chŏlla provinces.

 In 1980, Kim Dae-jung, a Catholic who relied on his religion as a source of strength, wrote his son from prison explaining that his faith required him to forgive his enemies and that “. . . we should forgive gladly because it leads to peace and reconciliation.”10 Two days after his election, Kim privately urged Kim Young-sam to amnesty Chun and Roh. On December 22, Kim Young-sam commuted their sentences and released them from prison. 

Kim’s first problem as president was the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. He is credited with working hard at reforming the economy according to the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. Consequently, the South Korean economy shrank by nearly 6 percent in 1998, but bounced back vigorously, growing by 10 percent in 1999. 

Kim Dae-jung’s major accomplishment in office was improving inter-Korean relations with the Sunshine Policy.11 An advocate of better North-South relations since at least 1971, Kim had frequently been accused of being pro-North or a communist and even prosecuted as a result. However, his more conciliatory approach appealed to many South Koreans. In 1998, Chung Ju-yung, Chairman of the Hyundai Group, in consultation with the Kim administration and in cooperation with the North Korean authorities, established a program to send South Korean tourists to the famously scenic Kumgang Mountains. This was an important step in the process of South-North reconciliation, affording thousands of South Koreans a firsthand, if limited, glimpse of North Korea.

In June 2000, Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il held a two-day meeting in P’yŏngyang, the first inter-Korean summit ever, and signed a five-point declaration providing that reunification should be achieved “on Koreans’ own initiative and through joint efforts,” agreeing “to resolve promptly humanitarian issues,” such as reunions for separated families, and to promote trust through exchanges and cooperation.12 International recognition of the significance of the Sunshine Policy was manifested in December 2000, when Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

This five-point declaration has not always been followed, especially on the matter of family visits, despite Kim’s and successor Roh Moo-hyun’s best efforts. On October 4, 2007, in P’yŏngyang, Roh and Kim Jong Il signed another agreement that begins with a pledge to adhere to the original declaration. 

The Kaesung Industrial Park, a Kim administration idea developed by Roh, was established in 2002. This and the Kumgang Mountain tourism project have been the most concrete examples of inter-Korean cooperation. Kim and other strong believers in Korean reconciliation were sorely disappointed when President Lee Myung-bak reversed much of the progress that had been made by reverting to a much more confrontational posture and repudiating these agreements. There are, of course, many in South Korea who, for ideological reasons, criticize Kim and Roh for being too accommodating to the North, as well as critics who have even accused Kim of buying North Korea’s agreement at a very high price.13 I believe that history will show that Kim and Roh were correct. 

In the twenty-first century there have been many difficulties in the relationships between the two Koreas and the US. A North Korean soldier’s tragic fatal shooting in 2008 of a South Korean tourist, who allegedly left the authorized area at the Kumgang Mountain resort, led to a still-unresolved suspension of the program leaving the Kaesung Industrial Park as the only currently functioning instance of North-South cooperation. 

Salient among the problems has been North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia were established to deal with this issue. In August 2003, in his first speech after finishing his presidency, Kim Dae-jung said: 

We should work together to resolve the confrontation between the US and North Korea to secure peace on the Korean peninsula. The upcoming six-nation talks in Beijing, which will soon open, must succeed. The fundamental issues of the six-nation talks must be solved between the US and North Korea. North Korea needs to completely surrender its nuclear program, and the US must guarantee security for North Korea. The six nations must also endorse the agreement. The general rule should be a totally encompassing package settlement, and we can implement things step by step. I have consistently asserted this solution. . . . 14

 To date, the talks have been unsuccessful and currently are suspended; North Korea has conducted three nuclear weapons tests. The difficult issues of nuclear proliferation on the peninsula and the establishment of a permanent Korean peace are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the author hopes that the South and North will return to the path of reconciliation that Kim Dae-jung worked for and that at long-last the concerned parties, including the US, will undertake negotiating a peace treaty to end the Korean War.


1. Jim Stenzel ed., More Tan Witnesses: How A Small Group of Missionaries Aided Korea’s Democratic Revolution (Seoul: Korea Democracy Foundation, 2006), 38.

2. US House of Representatives, “Investigation of Korean-American Relations: Report of the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations” (October 31, 1978), 42. Available at http://

3. Kim Dae-jung, The Autobiography of Kim Dae-jung, Vol. 1 (Seoul: Samin Publishing, 2010), 308-317.

4. Jimmy Carter, “Seoul, Republic of Korea Joint Communiqué Issued at the Conclusion of Meetings With President Park,” July 1, 1979. Available at The American Presidency Project at

5. Tim Shorrok, “The Cherokee Files, Kwangju: Turning Point In The Cold War In Asia,”, accessed March 14, 2014, npgbah

6. Sam Jameson, “US Support Claimed for S. Korea’s Chon,” The Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1980, Part 1: B18.

7. Henry Scott Stokes, “General Says South Korea Needs ‘New Leaders’ and He Is Willing . . . ” The New York Times, August 9, 1980, 18.

8. Clyde Haberman, “Opposition In Seoul Rejects Offer By Chun Aimed At Ending Crisis,” The New York Times, June 25, 1987, accessed March 14, 2014,

9. Asia Watch, Retreat from Reform: Labor Rights and Freedom of Expression in South Korea (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1990), 3-4.

10. Kim Dae-jung, Prison Writings. Translated by Choi Sung-il and David R. McCann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 8.

11. For a detailed account see Lim Dong-won, Peacemaker: Twenty Years of Inter- Korean Relations and the North Korean Nuclear Issue (Stanford: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2012), 1-66 and 153-261.

12. Lim, Appendix, 386.

13. The most extreme example in English is Donald Kirk, Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

14. In a speech, August 3, 2003 in Seoul before the annual meeting of the Harvard Project on Asian and International Relations (HPAIT) on page 6 in a copy in my possession.



Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place In The Sun: A Modern History. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2005.

Eckert, Carter J., Ki-baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, and Edward W. Wagner. Korea Old and New: A History. Harvard: Ilchokak for Korea Institute, 1991. 

The Democratization Process

Joong-Seou, Seo. Contemporary History of South Korea—60 Years. Translated by Sohn Jung In. Seoul: Korea Democracy Foundation, 2007.(Original in Korean with title: . The Korean has more detail and names are more precise.) 

Sohn, Hak-Kyu. Authoritarianism and Opposition in South Korea. London: Routledge, 1989. 

Inter-Korean Relations

 Dong-won, Lim. Peacemaker: Twenty Years of Inter-Korean Relations and the North Korean Nuclear Issue. Stanford: Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, 2012.

Government Report 

U.S. House of Representatives, “Investigation of Korean-American Relations: Report of the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations” (October 31, 1978) aka “The Fraser Subcommittee Report.” It has been translated into Korean and elicited a counter report from the Unification Church. 

Human Rights Specific

(With Human rights reports it is often difficult or impossible to figure out who the author(s) is/are. 

Shaw, William, ed. Human Rights in Korea: Historical and Policy Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. See especially Ch. 6, by Cohen and Baker, “US Foreign Policy and Human Rights in South Korea,” 171-219 and Ch. 7 by West and Baker, “The 1987 Constitutional Reforms in South Korea: Electoral Processes and Judicial Independence,” 221-252. 

Asia Watch. Human Rights in Korea. Edited by James B. Palais. Washington DC, 1986. 

International League for Human Rights and International Human Rights Law Group. Democracy in South Korea: A Promise Unfulfilled: A Report on Human Rights 1980-1985. New York, 1985. 

Amnesty International. South Korea: Violations of Human Rights. London, 1986.

 There are also many reports by Amnesty International and Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch—Asia) too numerous to list in a short bibliography, but searchable online. For example, the 1976 Mission report discussed in the article is at