Kim Dae-jung

Kim Dae-jung's early life is shrouded in mystery. According to his official biography, he was born on December 3, 1925 and was raised in a poor and remote island, 30 miles off the southwest Korean coast. In an unpusblished biography, written in 1993 by a relative, he is quoted as saying that he was actually born on January 6, 1924, and that his parents later falsified his birth date so he could avoid Japanese military service during World War II. Kim is a brilliant student and his family moves to the mainland city of Mokpo so he can go to high school, which in those days is a rarity. After graduation, he goes to work for a Japanese shipping company. When Japan surrenders Korea, as the best-educated Korean of the staff, his fellow workers let him take charge of the company.

During the Korean war, Mokpo is seized by the North Korean and Kim arrested as a capitalist. In the 1950s, already a very successful businessman, Kim enters politics as an opposition figure but lose four consecutive elections while spending his fortune on campaigning. Finally elected to the National Assembly in 1961, he loses his seat in the coup d'état but rises in the opposition ranks. In 1971, Kim runs for president and nearly wins. Two years later, when he is in Japan, he is kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officials, put on a ship and, by his own account, tied to concrete weights and prepared to be thrown overboard. At the last minute he is spared, apparently because of vigorous intervention by American officials in Seoul, and he is instead released, battered and dazed in the streets of Seoul. Then in 1980, the military government sentences Kim to death and comes within a hair's breadth of hanging him. The military dictator, Chun Doo-hwan finally agrees to spare his life under pressure from the Reagan administration. Kim is exiled to the United States. When democratic elections finally comes to Korea in 1987, he runs again, but split the opposition vote with another ex-dissident, Kim Young-sam, letting former general Roh Tae-woo be elected. In 1992, Kim runs again for president but loses to Kim Young-sam. He announces his retirement from politics, but then runs again for president in 1997 and wins by a slim margin and without a majority in the National Assembly.

Updates December 1999

see interview Summer 1999

see article Autumn 2000