Kim Dae-jung: Dedicated to reconciliation
(CNN) -- When South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in December 2000, he pledged to dedicate the rest of his life to the reconciliation and cooperation of Korean people.
During his decades-long struggle as an opposition leader, the 75-year-old former political prisoner endured a suspected assassination attempt, a kidnapping, repeated arrests, beatings, exile and a death sentence before he finally won the presidency four years ago.
Shortly after he took office, Kim vigorously met political leaders of Western countries in a bid to gain support for his Sunshine Policy to establish relations with the Stalinist North.
Kim's policy of détente culminated when he met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000, becoming the first South Korean leader to do so since the Korean War ended almost half a century ago.
Many of Kim's promised economic reforms in South Korea, however, have yet to materialize. The government has spent billions trying to clear up the bad debts of the chaebol, the traditional Korean conglomerates, but has not implemented the tough measures needed to restructure them.
A series of corruption scandals within Kim's government has also raised the level of criticism toward Kim's leadership.
A poll taken recently by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper and Korea Gallup found only 34 percent supported the administration's policy with 44 percent opposed to it. And 50 percent said North Korea has not changed at all in the year since the landmark 2000 summit.
Kim Dae-jung's main base of support lies in his home region in the southwest of the peninsula.
He gives his birth date as December 3, 1925. He was born to middle class farmers on Ha Enido, a small island in South Cholla province, but the family moved to the nearby port of Mokpo so that Kim could complete high school.
He began dabbling in anti-establishment politics while working in the shipping industry.
After his fifth try for political office, Kim was elected to the National Assembly in 1961. One month later, Gen. Park Chung-hee seized control of the government through a military coup, launching Kim's career as a key opposition figure. The tough, authoritarian Park proved the perfect foil for the fiery oratory of the charismatic Kim.
The more Park persecuted Kim, the more Kim's popularity grew -- especially in the region of Cholla. Many residents of the provinces of North and South Cholla felt disadvantaged during the regime of Park, who was from the Taegu region in the southeast, their political rival.
During the height of the Vietnam War, in 1971, Kim proclaimed his liberal views on the reunification of North and South Korea. He was branded a communist by the government, but in his first presidential race he won 46 percent of the vote running against Park.
Kim was headed to a rally in Seoul a month after the election when a truck turned directly into the path of his car, forcing him off the road. The truck hit another vehicle, killing two people. Kim was left with a permanent limp from the incident, which is widely believed to have been an assassination attempt.
Park tightened his hold in 1972, scrapping the constitution and doing away with any pretense of democratic rule. Kim traveled to Japan for medical treatment and continued his anti-Park campaign. In August 1973, South Korean agents kidnapped Kim from a Tokyo hotel and took him out to sea in a small boat where he spent several harrowing days.
When U.S. Ambassador Philip Habib was informed of the abduction, he called Park and warned him that he would face severe repercussions from the United States if Kim were killed. Kim was returned to his Seoul home, battered but alive, and spent the next nine years under house arrest, in jail or in exile.
In 1979 Park was assassinated by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and another general, Chun Doo-hwan, imposed martial law as he moved to take over the presidency.
Kim and other leading opposition figures were arrested as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Kwangju, in South Cholla Province. Troops used force to quell the demonstrations, killing at least 200 people by some estimates.
Kim was charged with sedition and nearly executed, but again the United States intervened and Kim's life was spared. Under a deal with the Reagan administration, Kim boarded a plane to the United States in 1982.
When he returned to his homeland a few years later, however, the United States could not help him again. As soon as he stepped off the plane in Seoul, Kim was knocked down by Korean security officers and dragged back into house arrest.
'I never lost hope'
Kim made two more failed bids for president -- in 1987 and 1992 -- before declaring that he was quitting politics.
His retirement did not last long. The maverick politician forged a dramatic coalition with Kim Jong-pil, another opposition leader and the founder of the KCIA, and Kim Dae-jung was elected president in 1997, at the height of the Asian economic crisis.
"Throughout my life I have faced death five times. For six years I was in prisons, and for 10 years I was in exile or under house arrest," Kim told Time magazine shortly after winning the presidency. "I never lost hope that someday there would be something like this."
His inauguration marked the first peaceful transfer of power between rival parties in 50 years.
The economic crisis presented Kim with a huge problem at the beginning of his presidency, but it also rallied the patriotism of the population. Passions for regional politics were subdued by a spirit of cooperation needed to help alleviate the country's dire financial circumstances.
South Korea's economy shrank by 5.8 percent in 1998 but bounced back in 1999 to grow by 10.2 percent.
Kim has been largely credited with the economic turnaround, but he has not rested on his laurels.
Despite his advanced age, his outlook appears focused on the future. He stresses the need for technological development for South Korea to assume its rightful place as a first-rate nation with a strong economy backed by a democratic system.
"In the new millennium, an electronic democracy will be realized," Kim said in an address posted on his web site.
"We must forge a clean nation where corruption and irregularities are rooted out completely through active public participation and surveillance ... If we cannot cope creatively and positively with the knowledge revolution in the new age, we will be pushed aside to the periphery of world history."
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