- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

SEOUL | Kim Dae-jung, the former dissident-turned-president who went on to become South Korea’s only Nobel peace laureate, continued to push for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula even as his life drew to a close.

Mr. Kim died Tuesday from complications of pneumonia, including a pulmonary embolism and multiple organ failure. He was 83.

In May, before he became ill, Mr. Kim wrote a six-page memo and handed two copies to former President Bill Clinton, who agreed to convey the message to his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and President Obama. Mr. Clinton said he would deliver the message, according to e-mail from Mr. Kim’s secretary.

It could not be learned Tuesday what, if any, role Mr. Clinton’s meeting with Mr. Kim on May 11 played in Mr. Clinton’s subsequent visit to Pyongyang nearly three months later, during which Mr. Clinton won the release of two American journalists from prison.

But the previously undisclosed session marked an appropriate finale to the South Korean statesman’s remarkable life.

“D.J. made a difference right up till the end. I’m convinced that meeting with President Kim played a role in [Mr. Clinton’s] decision to get involved,” said Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and now chairman of the Korea Society in New York.

On Aug. 4, Mr. Clinton flew to Pyongyang and met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who pardoned journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee and allowed them to return to the U.S.

Mr. Kim’s defiance of South Korean dictatorships throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and much of the ‘80s made him one of the world’s highest-profile dissidents.

He survived multiple assassination attempts, with the United States intervening on at least two occasions to prevent his execution.

That partly explained one of the great ironies of Mr. Kim’s life: His love for the United States belied the anti-Americanism of many of his supporters from a generation angered by U.S. support for South Korean military dictators throughout the Cold War.

In 1973, Mr. Kim disappeared from a hotel room in Tokyo. Mr. Gregg was the CIA station chief in Seoul at the time.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Mr. Gregg recalled a tense conversation with then-U.S. ambassador to South Korea Philip Habib, who said at the time:

“They’re going to kill him, but they’re not going to kill him until they hear what I have to say. If you can tell me by tomorrow morning who kidnapped him and where he is now, I think we can keep him alive.”

After receiving the information, Mr. Habib took effective action to gain Mr. Kim’s release.

The story, recounted in many history books, has Mr. Kim on a boat off the Japan coast, fastened to a board with heavy chains, with South Korean agents preparing to throw him overboard.

A U.S. military plane - some accounts say it was a helicopter - began buzzing the boat. The assassination was called off.

Back in Seoul, Mr. Kim remained under house arrest until the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee.

Within a year, another general, Chun Doo-hwan, had seized power, crushed a pro-democracy protest in the southwestern city of Kwang-ju by killing several hundred civilians, and blamed the uprising on Mr. Kim.

The new dictator had Mr. Kim jailed and sentenced to death, until the Reagan administration intervened by inviting Mr. Chun to the White House for a summit in early 1981.

“The price of that summit was Kim Dae-jung’s life,” Mr. Gregg recalled. Mr. Kim was allowed to come to the United States, where he lived in exile, lectured at Harvard University and continued to agitate for democracy in his homeland.

“He was the symbol of the excesses of dictators and of democratic resistance,” said Michael Breen, author of “The Koreans” and a former journalist who knew Mr. Kim well.

Mr. Kim returned to South Korea to run for president in 1987, an election he lost in a three-way race to another former general. He lost the next election in 1992 to a rival dissident, who switched sides and joined the ruling party.

His victory in 1997 marked South Korea’s first peaceful handover of power to an opposition candidate.

Mr. Obama said Tuesday that Mr. Kim’s “personal sacrifices on behalf of freedom are inspirational and should never be forgotten.”

“His accomplishments and aspirations to achieve democratization and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered,” said South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

While political events are likely to define Mr. Kim’s life, he took office as an economic crisis battered Asia - a crisis that arguably rivals today’s global recession.

Mr. Kim accepted a $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and other international lenders, along with conditions that required South Korea to open its insular economy to foreign investment.

He forced the giant conglomerates to restructure and threw open the nation’s insular capital and real estate markets to foreigners. It was a bitter pill, but South Korea managed to pull out of its recession within a year.

Perhaps his crowning achievement in the eyes of many South Koreans was the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize he received for efforts to make peace with North Korea, which included an unprecedented summit meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-il, the first between a South Korean leader and his North Korean counterpart.

Ditching decades of containment and confrontation, Mr. Kim promoted what he called the “Sunshine Policy” - named after Aesop’s fable in which a warm sun, rather than a chill wind, compels a man to ditch his protective coat.

Mr. Kim enlisted legendary entrepreneur Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai Group and a one-time North Korean refugee himself, to open a joint tourism resort at the scenic Mount Kumgang on North Korea’s east coast in 1998.

“The uniqueness of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ was that Kim Dae-jung kept to the course and stuck to his guns,” said Ra Jong-yil, a former aide to Mr. Kim and later South Korea’s intelligence chief. “He had a philosophy and a strategy.”

The Korean Peninsula appeared on the verge of a breakthrough, but opposition from the incoming George W. Bush administration in Washington and Pyongyang’s reluctance to follow through on promises put reconciliation efforts on hold for the remainder of Mr. Kim’s term.

Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society, recalled a conversation he had with Mr. Kim on Mr. Kim’s final full day of office in 2003. At the time, Mr. Revere was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

“It was an emotional reflection on the plusses and minuses of his presidency,” Mr. Revere said. “The one thing that came through was his love for America, and that came from theheart.”

Mr. Witter reported from Washington.

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