Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Saturday, 22 August 2009 12:24 UK

South Korea's champion of democracy

Soldiers carry the coffin containing former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea
Kim Dae-jung survived several attempts on his life and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000

South Korea is in mourning for former President Kim Dae-jung, whose burial is on Sunday. His personal courage in standing up to the military government in South Korea made him a symbol of universal human rights. William Horsley came to know Mr Kim during his long years of imprisonment and persecution.

"I am lucky that my thread of life is strong. It's not easily cut." As usual, Kim Dae-jung spoke softly, but his modest manner concealed an iron determination and self-belief.

This week he died in a hospital bed, aged 85, and I remembered those words, spoken at his home in Seoul many years ago.

He told how his abductors were preparing to throw him overboard to drown when an American military helicopter appeared

His life was a series of improbable escapes from assassination attempts, a death sentence, and long periods in prison and in exile, before he was recognised as one of Asia's all-time champions of democracy.

For me, three dramatic moments - a kidnap, a homecoming and a sudden peaceful revolution - tell the story of how he transformed his country and made himself a legend.

The first was the close brush with death which Kim Dae-jung described when I first met him back in the late 1970s.

Kim Dae-jung ( as opposition leader) speaking to the people during a protest in South Korea, 1969.
Kim was branded a dangerous radical by South Korea's military rulers

He was then already a veteran of a long struggle against the harsh military rule which gripped South Korea throughout the Cold War years, when the country was on a constant war alert, for fear of an incident across its frontier with the unpredictable regime in the North.

Kim Dae-jung's devoted wife brought his visitors traditional ginseng tea as he spoke about his terrifying kidnapping by Korean intelligence agents a few years before.

He had been in Tokyo for a political meeting in a top international hotel, when a group of men seized him in broad daylight, and drugged him unconscious.

After dark, they took him to Tokyo Bay and bundled him, tied and gagged, into a boat and out to sea.

Death row

He told how his abductors were preparing to throw him overboard to drown when an American military helicopter appeared and flew low over the boat to indicate that it was being watched.

That saved his life, and he re-appeared several days later at his house in Seoul, the focus of a storm of international press coverage.

For much of his life Kim Dae-jung was public enemy number one to the successive military strongmen who ruled South Korea.

He had come close to toppling one of them, Park Chung-hee in the 1971 presidential elections, attracting huge crowds to his rallies in Seoul, where he called for real democracy, welfare policies and detente with North Korea.

His supporters claimed he had actually won, but that the vote was rigged against him.

He set a new flame of democracy alight in Asia, he was ready to die for the cause of human rights for all

For the next 17 years he would be either in jail, under house arrest, or banned from taking part in politics.

In the 1980s his life was again spared, against the odds.

A mass popular revolt against military rule in Kim Dae-jung's home city of Kwangju in the far south was bloodily put down. He was blamed and sentenced to death for sedition.

After weeks on death row, more US pressure and an appeal from Pope John Paul II, the generals were persuaded to commute the death sentence to a jail term, and after two years of ill treatment there he was allowed to go to the US.

Street protests

But by 1985 he was on a plane from Tokyo going back to his country, determined to lead the campaign for democracy despite the risks, and I was one of the reporters who travelled with him to see that homecoming.

Only two years earlier Benigno Aquino, the main leader of the opposition in the Philippines to its dictator President Marcos, had been shot dead on his return home from exile.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (R) and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung joining hands during a historic summit in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang
Kim is probably best known for his efforts to rebuild relations North Korea

Before long Kim Dae-jung found himself in jail yet again, but his presence in South Korea inspired many and added to the build-up of pressure for democratic change.

After that South Korea's people power revolution came quite soon.

It happened after weeks of street clashes between student protesters and riot police which had filled the centre of Seoul with tear gas and made headlines around the world.

With the 1988 Seoul Olympics coming close, the general then ruling South Korea, Roh Tae-woo, suddenly announced an end to all the government's repressive policies, fresh elections and the release of all political prisoners - including Kim Dae-jung.

The final chapter was the one which at last brought him recognition, and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize.

Map

Elected South Korea's president for five years from 1998, Kim Dae-jung abolished the death penalty, held the first ever summit of leaders from both halves of Korea, and threw his weight behind Aung Sang Suu Kyi's long-suffering attempt to bring democracy to Burma.

The morality tale is not without its flaws.

Kim Dae-jung's name was tarnished by the revelation that big money had been secretly paid to Kim Jong-il in North Korea to persuade him to take part in the inter-Korean summit.

And both of Kim Dae-jung's sons ended up in jail for corruption. Even so, to me his legacy is beyond doubt - he set a new flame of democracy alight in Asia, he was ready to die for the cause of human rights for all, and he made the best use of his "strong thread of life".

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SEE ALSO
N Korea envoys mourn Kim Dae-jung
21 Aug 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Former S Korea President Kim dies
18 Aug 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: South Korea
13 Oct 11 |  Country profiles


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