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Light and salt in Korean society

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When Kim Dae Jung, president of South Korea and recipient of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, met Pope John Paul II in March, he gave the pontiff a description of the Korean Catholic church that could apply to himself. Kim said the church, formed amid adversity, trials and tribulations, had grown up to become the light and salt in society.

Kim, now 74, converted to Catholicism in 1956 at the age of 31. He has spent 40 years opposing repressive, militaristic governments and has seen his share of adversity, trials and tribulations.

Between 1970 and 1990, he spent most of his time in prison, under house arrest or in exile. He has survived at least two, maybe four, assassination attempts and innumerable beatings from police and jailers.

“I used to spend sleepless nights in anguish, thinking and praying how to carry on with life,” Kim told a congregation of 500 Korean Catholics who joined him last year for a special Mass to mark the anniversary of his baptism. Kim’s baptismal name is Thomas More, after a saint who had his own troubles with political oppression.

“One night while in prayer, I heard a voice say, ‘Only be faithful and you will live.’ I made up my mind then to live only according to God’s will,” said Kim, according to a report of the event carried by UCA News. His life has been a testimony to that pledge.

Kim seems at ease with his religious beliefs and unabashedly refers to those beliefs as he pursues his political agenda.

At his presidential inauguration in February 1998, he vowed to make himself “the president of the people,” a president who would “wipe the tears of the alienated and encourage those in despair.” He called for a “revolution of mind,” which meant, he said, “respect for each person and adherence to justice as the highest value.” One commentator at the inauguration said Kim called for women’s rights and equality saying, “the wall of sexual discrimination in homes, workplaces and society must be removed.”

The observer said he had never known a Korean president to make such a pledge.

It was also at his inauguration that Kim reiterated his determination to do all he could to bring reconciliation with North Korea, bringing unity to a people divided for more than 50 years. It was for his efforts toward that still-to-be-realized political goal that Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize. For Kim, though, it had been no mere political pledge.

Few politicians have articulated as sincerely as he has the virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation. In a letter sent to his second son, Hong-up, Nov. 24, 1980, after Kim was sentenced to death, he wrote: “Only the truly magnanimous and strong are capable of forgiving and loving. Let us persevere, then, praying always that God will help us to have the strength to love and forgive our enemies. Let us together, in this way, become the loving victors.”

Kim would put these words into action. He forgave and granted amnesties to the two military leaders who had imprisoned and nearly killed him, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo. Chun and Roh had been tried and convicted of corruption and were serving jail terms when Kim was elected president in 1997.

In an interview with Time magazine shortly after his 1998 presidential inauguration, Kim named three sources of inspiration: Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius), who lived 2,300 years ago and spoke of democratic values, and Chun Bong Joon, a 19th-century Korean revolutionary leader who mobilized 200,000 farmers to rise against feudalism and Japanese power.

“And I admire Abraham Lincoln and his spirit of tolerance, forgiveness and inclusiveness,” Kim said. He referred to the fact that after the North’s win in the U.S. civil war, Lincoln forgave the people of the South, saying, “With malice toward none and charity for all.”

Kim said, “I was able to forgive ex-Presidents Chun and Roh, who tried to kill me, because of Lincoln’s influence.” Kim was able to bear years of torment, because, like his baptismal namesake, he sees his political role as primarily that of a servant. He understands the term to mean not civil servant, but suffering servant.

“Carrying the cross means struggling against oppressive structures as Jesus did,” Kim told the gathering last year at his baptismal anniversary. There may be temporary failure and misunderstanding, he said, but history has proven that justice will always prevail.

Furthermore, Kim’s faith is that of an activist. He told the pope during their meeting in March: “The Korean Catholic church played a leading role in the struggle for democracy and human rights under the authoritarian governments of the past. It also took the lead in efforts to protect the rights of the poor as well as for reconciliation and peaceful unification. And in 1997, when the entire Korean people were suffering a setback on account of the foreign currency crisis, it gave us courage, confidence and hope.

“I believe that the Korean Catholic church will become an important foundation for peace and the development of Korean society.”

Kim concluded his audience with the pope by saying, “The Korean people and I promise you, Your Holiness, that we will carry out our role and responsibility as a member of the world community so that the 21st century will be an age of peace and prosperity.”

Perhaps a handwritten scroll he presented to Edwin O. Reischauer, a former U.S. ambassador, can best sum up Kim’s political code. The Chinese characters translate, “Serving man [humanity] is like serving Heaven.”

Kim Dae Jung was born Dec. 3, 1925, on a small, isolated island off the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula. He was the second son of a poor sharecropper for a Japanese landowner.

After finishing school, he worked for a maritime shipping firm until the mid-1950s when he became a full-time politician. His political career was unfortunate from the start. He lost two elections before finally securing a seat in the National Assembly in 1961. However, within three days of his election, the National Assembly was closed by a military coup d’état, and his election was nullified. Throughout his political career, he was a leader of the opposition. He first ran for the presidency in 1971. He managed to win 46 percent of the vote despite widespread polling fraud by the incumbent, Park Chung Hee. Kim’s popularity also brought two-and-a-half decades of political oppression.

In 1972, Park imposed martial law, and Kim went into exile in Japan. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel in August 1973, planning to murder him at sea, but the plot did not succeed. Kim was returned to Seoul and placed under house arrest. Continuing to agitate for greater democracy, he was sentenced to prison from 1976 to 1978 and then to several more years of house arrest.

Following the assassination of President Park in 1979, Kim was freed from house arrest, but within several months he was back in prison, charged with treason by the martial law authorities who had carried out another coup d’état. He was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment and then to 20 years. In December 1982, the jail term was suspended, and he began another period of house arrest that lasted until 1987, except for a couple years of exile in the United States.

A pro-democracy movement brought a new constitution and great political change to Korea in 1987. Kim was cleared of all outstanding charges, and his full political rights were restored. He ran for president in 1987 and 1992 before finally winning in 1997.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000