Monday, September 7, 2009

Believing in history

Kim Dae-jung, a former President of South Korea and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, died a few weeks ago, but in the last year of his life he kept a diary, and extracts have just been published. They are, in part, philosophical with reflections back over his life. However, some of the extracts are also proving controversial for being critical of the current administration led by President Lee Myung-bak.

Kim (his family name) was born in 1925 the son of a farmer. He studied at Mokpo Commercial High School and went to work for a Japanese-owned shipping company during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In time, he ended up as owner of the same firm. During the Korean War he managed to escape capture by the Communists, and subsequently went on to enter politics, being elected to the National Assembly for the first time in the early 1960s. By the mid-1960s, he had become a prominent opposition politician. In 1971, he was chosen as presidential candidate for the New Democratic Party to run against the incumbent, Park Chung Hee.

During the Assembly election campaign that followed the presidential vote, Kim experienced the first of at least five attempts on his life by political enemies. When the re-elected Park imposed martial law, Kim began a vigorous campaign against the measures. In August 1973, government agents abducted him from a Tokyo hotel. Intervention by the US saved his life, but he was still imprisoned, and then kept under house arrest. After Park’s assassination, Kim’s freedom was restored, only to be taken away again following a coup that brought Chun Doo-hwan to power. He was given exile to the US, where he taught at Harvard until his return to South Korea in 1985.

Back in Seoul, Kim was immediately put under house arrest but his return intensified a nationwide movement for democracy. In 1987, his civil and political rights were restored, leaving him free to run for office, which he did three times before being elected President, in 1997. He is credited with major reforms and restructuring, which helped pull the country back from a financial crisis, and for pursuing a policy of engagement toward North Korea (the Sunshine Policy). In 2000, Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular.’

Kim completed his five year presidential term in 2003. He was succeeded first by Roh Moo-hyun, and then, in 2008, by the current President, Lee Myung-bak. Roh, however, committed suicide last May, and just three months months later, in August, Kim died too. There is more biographical information about him on the Nobel Peace Prize website, at Wikipedia, and in various recent obituaries, such as The Guardian’s.

Within days of Kim’s death, 30,000 copies of a small printed book entitled Insaengeun Areumdapgo Yeoksaneun Baljeonhanda (Life Is Beautiful and History Advances) were released. It contains a selection of diary entries from the last year of Kim’s life, starting in 2008 and ending in June 2009. A number of extracts are available online thanks to The Hankyoreh, a left-leaning South Korean newspaper.

In the journal, Hankyoreh notes, Kim ‘passionately’ expresses his rage against the unilateral behavior of the Lee Myung-bak administration, and shares his ‘concern and dismay over the state of democracy in South Korea and the extent to which inter-Korean relations is in crisis’. Also, as if sensing that he does not have long to live, he praises the beauty of life and expresses warm affection for his wife Lee Hee-ho. Here are a few extracts.

11 January 2009
‘I love and respect my wife, and without her, I might not be here now and even now, I think living without her would be difficult.’

20 January 2009 (the day police stormed a building to forcibly evicts tenants)
‘Because of the violent suppression of the police, five people are dead and an additional ten have been hospitalized with injuries. It is truly barbaric behavior.’

‘The situation of these poor citizens, who are being chased out of their homes in the cold winter, brings tears to my eyes.’

14/15 January 2009
‘The question in life is not how long you lived. It is whether you lived for people who are suffering and are faced with hardship.’

‘I have lived my life believing in history and the people even amid innumerable persecutions. In the future, I will continue to walk this same path for as long as I am alive.’

16 January 2009
‘All dictators in history think that they alone will not follow the same path as those previous if they prepare well enough, but in the end, they walk the same path or are subject to history’s harsh judgment.’

27 April 2009
‘What is there to hope for in this world? I will maintain my health until the end and to lend the counsel necessary for resolving the three major crises of the present: the crisis of democracy, the economic crisis of the working class, and the crisis in inter-Korean relations.’

23 May 2009 (the day Roh Moo-hyun died)
‘Prosecutors were too harsh in their investigation. They attacked him, his wife, his son, his older brother and his nephew-in-law as if they were cleaning house.’

29 May 2009
‘There has probably never been a case of nationwide mourning like this before. The people’s disappointment, rage and sadness about reality seems to overlap with President Roh’s.’

A few days ago, Chosun Ilbo (The Korean Daily) published an article about Kim’s diary (and a forthcoming memoir) chastising Kim himself for outspokenly attacking a current administration, and criticising those who seek to use the diary (and memoir) for political ends.

It says: ‘There lingers a sour suspicion that some will seek to take advantage of his diary. Some of the entries plainly criticize the Lee Myung-bak administration. Kim should have known better than anyone that it is unseemly for a former president to condemn one of his successors. The opposition seems to abuse the journal as if it was his political testament that he wanted them to pursue. And indeed, the diary clearly shows his unfailing conviction and trust in himself as a politician rather than self-doubt as a weak human being.’

But concludes: ‘Kim Dae-jung’s memoirs will be the first book in Korea a retired president wrote with posterity in mind. Recording stark truths may be important, but the book should show what kind of person Kim really was, since we know he was an eloquent and well-read man. Let us hope that his writings can be enjoyed in perpetuity for their own sake instead of being abused as a political bible by his supporters.’

No comments: