Mourning Kim Dae-jung

Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung speaking at the first annual Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit in Seoul, Korea, Nov. 2006. (Asia Society)

Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who pioneered his nation’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea, died in Seoul on Tuesday from complications from pneumonia. He was 85.

One of the key figures in Korea’s move toward democracy, Kim won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to bring the two Koreas closer together. His policy of opening to the North proved popular at first, but eventually was subject to criticism, particularly at home.

Kim was first elected to the National Assembly in 1961 and gained popularity after speaking out against General Park Chung-hee, who had seized power in a military coup. Park would continue to rule for the next 18 years.

In 1971, still popular with the Korean people, Kim narrowly lost a bid for the presidency, garnering 46% of the vote. A month later he survived the first of what would be five apparent attempts on his life and went into exile in Japan.

Still a voice of opposition against the regime, in 1973, South Korean agents kidnapped him in Tokyo, bringing him back to Seoul, where he spent the next few years under house arrest, in jail or exile.

General Park was assassinated in 1979, but another general, Chun Doo-hwan, took power. A few years later, Kim was allowed to leave and went to live in Boston where he taught at Harvard University. Upon his return to Korea, he was immediately put under house arrest and resumed his role as an opposition leader.

Finally in 1997, Kim was elected President of Korea, amid the Asian financial crisis. Despite his hard won victory, he began to face criticism for his policies toward North Korea, as people grew tired of what they perceived was a lack of reciprocation from the North.

“Concerns of his later years should not overshadow the importance of his decades of public service,” argued Mike Kulma, Director of Policy Initiatives at Asia Society. “While questions and criticisms of his policies and methods will endure, his legacy of dedication to the causes of freedom and reconciliation should not be forgotten.”

Kim had a longstanding relationship with the Asia Society that goes back to 1995 when he spoke about the implications of Korean reunification to an audience in Houston, Texas. Later, Kim spoke at Asia Society's first annual Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit in November of 2006 in Seoul, Korea.

“Asia Society deeply mourns the loss of President Kim Dae-Jung,” said Asia Society President Vishakha Desai. “He was a good friend of Asia Society, a great national leader and a thoughtful global leader who committed his life to democratization of his country and to humanitarian approach to world's most pressing issues, including the problems between North and South Korea.”