Childhood & Early Life
Kim Dae Jung was born on the South Korean island of Hauido, Sinan County, in Jeolla province, which was under the Imperial Japanese rule at that time. While his registered date of birth is 3 December 1925, he was actually born on 6 January 1924. It is believed that his birth date was falsified to avoid his conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army.
His parents Kim Woon-sik and Jang Su-geum were middle-class farmers. Kim was the second child among his parents’ seven children. He had two surviving brothers; Kim Dae-eui and Kim Dae-hyun, and three surviving sisters; Kim Mae-wol, Kim Yong-rae and Kim Jin-chan.
He began his education at an elementary school in Haeuido, where he studied until fourth grade. When he was 10 years old, his father moved the family to Mokpo so that Kim could attend a good school.
Kim was first enrolled in ‘Bukgyo Elementary School’, and he later attended ‘Mokpo Commercial School’, from where he graduated in 1943 at the top of his class. As required by the Japanese policy of Sōshi-kaimei, he had to have a Japanese name, so he took Toyota Taichu as his name.
Not much is known about his school life, except that he helped his father in running his inn in his spare time. He was elected the class captain, but was removed from the post when he criticized the Japanese rule in his short essay.
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In 1943, Kim Dae Jung began his career as a clerk in a Japanese shipping company. He learned the tricks of the trade very quickly and became the owner of the company a year later.
When Japan left Korea in 1945, Kim took over the shipping company that he was working for; and very soon, he had a fleet of nine small freighters. He had earned a good amount of wealth by 1948 and decided to launch a newspaper called ‘The Mokpo Ilbo’. He served as its CEO until 1950.
When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Kim was in Seoul. He walked for 15 days through the turmoil to reach Mokpo. Once there, he was captured by the communists for being a ‘reactionary capitalist’ and was sentenced to death by a firing squad. He somehow escaped being shot.
Early Political Career
Syngman Rhee became the President of South Korea in 1948 and began to enact laws to curtail political dissent. The resulting dissatisfaction provoked Kim Dae Jung to enter politics. He made an unsuccessful bid for election to the National Assembly in 1954.
After two more failed attempts, he finally entered the National Assembly in 1961 by winning a by-election. But within days, a military coup led to the dissolution of the assembly. Major General Park Chung Hee seized power and elected himself as the President of South Korea in 1963.
Kim entered the National Assembly from Mokpo in 1963, soon making his mark as an accomplished lawmaker. His speeches in and outside the Assembly earned him a huge following, making him one of the most charismatic leaders in the country.
In 1965, he was elected the ‘Chairman of the Policy Planning’ of his party, and he held the position until 1967. In the same year, he was reelected to the National Assembly. He became a vocal critic of President Park’s dictatorial policies.
In 1969, President Park sought constitutional revisions that were meant to allow him to run for a third term. Kim intensified his criticism of Park’s plans, addressing an outdoor rally on the issue. His speech was applauded by the people, who began to praise him for his vision and courage.
He became the president of the newly formed ‘New Democratic Party’ in 1970. By this time, he had garnered a huge following, becoming the opposition’s natural candidate for the presidential elections, which were to be held in the following year. Sometime now, he also enrolled in the ‘Kyung Hee University’ to study economics.
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In 1971, Kim filed his presidency bid on the New Democratic Party’s ticket. Against him was the all-powerful incumbent president, Park Chung Hee, who used every unfair strategy in the book to win the elections. Yet, Kim managed to garner around 46% votes, losing the election to Park by a small margin of 970,000 votes.
Imprisonments & Assassination Attempts
Although Park won the election, he now began to see Kim Dae Jung as a big threat. Since then, there were at least five attempts on Kim’s life, the first of which occurred when a heavily-loaded truck rammed into his car during an assembly election campaign, shortly after the presidential elections concluded in 1971.
The 1971 car accident damaged Kim’s hip joints, causing him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. His two aides were also badly injured in the accident. Later, an investigation revealed that the assassination attempt was carried out by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency with the tacit support from the president.
President Park imposed martial law in October 1972 by enforcing Yushin Constitution that banned all political activities and dissolved the National Assembly. It also granted enormous power to the president, allowing him to be reelected for unlimited terms. Kim began to campaign against the new law, gaining support from the USA and Japan.
In August 1973, he was in Tokyo, attending a meeting with the leader of the Democratic Unification Party in room no. 2212 of the Hotel Grand Palace. As he walked out of the room, he was abducted by some unidentified men, possibly the agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
He was taken to Room no 2210, where he was drugged. After that, he was taken to Osaka and smuggled into a boat, which was heading for Korea. In the boat, his abductors gagged his mouth and tied some weight to his legs, possibly with the intention of throwing him into the sea.
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force had begun a lookout for Kim. US Ambassador Philip Habib also intervened. Suddenly, a plane appeared from somewhere and his life was saved.
He was released in Busan and five days after the kidnaping, he was found at his home in Seoul, bruised and battered. He was now indicted in old cases and was sentenced to imprisonment. Later, however, his punishment was reduced to house arrest, but he was banned from politics.
While Kim was still banned from politics, he jointly issued a call for the restoration of democracy with 19 other dissidents on March 1, 1976. It resulted in a five-year jail term. In December 1978, his term was once again reduced to house arrest.
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President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1978, and with that, Kim’s political and civil rights were restored for a short period. But when Chun Doo-hwan seized power, his activities were curtailed once more.
In May 1980, as mass agitation against the Chun Doo-hwan regime broke out in the country, Kim was once again thrown into prison on charges of mass agitation and treason. In November, a military court sentenced him to death.
Following the intervention of the US President Ronald Reagan, his death sentence was first commuted to life imprisonment and then to a 20-year prison term. His writings from this period display his love for his family and his belief in Christianity.
In December 1982, at America’s behest, Kim’s prison term was deferred on the condition that he would no longer remain in Korea. Subsequently, he traveled to the USA and settled down in Boston. He became a visiting professor at the Center for International Affairs, ‘Harvard University’.
During his stay in the USA, he wrote a number of articles for different newspapers, sharply criticizing the South Korean government. He also gave speeches on human rights and democracy. The tumultuous political condition in South Korea was always on his mind.
In early 1985, Kim returned to South Korea and was immediately put under house arrest. But his presence acted as a catalyst in the country, intensifying public agitation against the military rule. He soon began to be considered the principle opposition leader.
In June 1987, he was cleared of all charges and his civil and political rights were also restored. In the same year, he ran for the presidential elections, but was defeated mainly because the opposition vote was fractured. Nonetheless, he was able to garner 27% vote.
After losing the 1992 presidential elections, Kim moved to the United Kingdom, where he became a visiting scholar at the Clare Hall, ‘Cambridge University’. Most people considered it to be the end of his political career, but he surprised them when he announced his return in 1995.
President of South Korea
Kim Dae Jung returned to South Korea just in time to take part in the presidential elections of 1997. By then, the Asian financial crisis had started, causing an economic crisis in his country. It however worked in his favor, and he finally won the election, becoming the country’s eighth president.
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Kim was sworn in on 25 February 1998. He made sure that Jeolla Province, which had so far been neglected, was adequately represented in the government. He also started vigorous economic reforms, reconstructing the economy in accordance to the recommendations of the ‘International Monetary Fund’.
He made the powerful business lobbies accountable, forcing them to follow transparent accounting practices. Moreover, he cut state subsidies to large corporations, in some cases totally suspending them. All these steps benefited South Korea immensely, and the economy grew by 10.2% in 1999, in comparison to 5.8% the year prior.
Kim’s peace initiatives, including a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong il, resulted in a friendlier tie with North Korea. His policy of engagement with North Korea was termed as the ‘Sunshine Policy’. At home, he pardoned Chun Doo Hwan and his successor Roe Tae Woo, both of whom had been sentenced to death by his predecessor President Kim Young Sam on graft charges.
South Korea and Japan jointly hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup during his regime.
Kim Dae Jung completed his five-year term as the president in 2003. He was succeeded by Roh Moo Hyun. After his exit from office, he remained active in politics and called for restrain against North Korea.