The Kim Dae Jung Administration (1998–2002)
Kim Dae Jung was elected on a pledge to work for democratic reform, attack corruption in government and business, curb the power of chaebols, and change policies that promoted economic growth at the expense of democracy. He promised, in addition, to take steps toward reconciliation with North Korea that might lead one day to a reunifi-cation of the two countries. Though his tenure in office would not be without its scandals and disappointments, it marked a decisive shift in the politics of the Republic of Korea.
Even in the midst of a financial crisis, the new president made the further democratization of South Korea an immediate priority. Whereas Kim Young Sam had put his allies in charge of the ANSP, Kim Dae Jung took steps to reduce its power, its funding, and its staff. He turned the ANSP’s focus away from domestic spying toward the more legitimate function of gathering intelligence about North Korea and sponsored an investigation that revealed its structure and its past activities to the people of South Korea.
In his first year in office, Kim’s government passed an amnesty for all those political prisoners who had renounced their antigovernment views. He then broadened the amnesty to include those who remained obdurate (or steadfast, depending on one’s point of view). Among those released was Woo Yong Gak, who had spent almost 40 years in prison for refusing to renounce his loyalty to North Korea.
After decades when workers had organized bravely in the face of government repression, Kim Dae Jung facilitated a remarkable change in labor’s position in the system, bringing labor leaders together with business and government in an attempt to fairly spread the sacrifice demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for its assistance to South Korea.Upon taking office in February 1998, Kim had to deal with an ailing economy.
The crash had struck South Korea just three months before, and Kim found it necessary to seek help from the IMF, which meant giving in to the IMF’s free trade policies, policies that often make the leaders who must help to implement them extremely unpopular. As it happened, however, the IMF requirements for South Korea were not so different from the economic reforms that Kim had been calling for throughout South Korea.
They included greater transparency in exchange for their loans and an improved debt-to-equity ratio. These demands as well the financial crisis itself put pressure on the chaebol, the largest of which, Daewoo, went bankrupt. By 1999 South Korea had returned to its previous high growth rates—11 percent in 1999 and 9 percent in 2000. The U.S. recession in 2001 slowed South Korean growth to 6 percent.
The most ambitious of Kim Dae Jung’s initiatives was his Sunshine Policy of gradual engagement and reconciliation with North Korea. Kim Dae Jung was not the first ROK president to make moves in that direction, but he was by far the most serious and persistent.
His rather one-sided efforts to woo a secretive and troubled DPRK—one in the midst of a far more serious economic crisis than South Korea’s—brought him a mixed response from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, hostility from the United States, and ultimately reduced his popularity in his own country.
The thankless campaign began as soon as Kim Dae Jung took office. He mentioned it in his inaugural address, reminding his audience of a need to respect the pride of North Koreans and suggesting a multistage process under which the DPRK and the ROK would be linked in a federal system. Kim laid down three general principles he said should guide the process: “First, we will never tolerate armed provocation of any kind.
Secondly, we do not have any intention to undermine or absorb North Korea. Third, we will actively push reconciliation and cooperation between the South and North beginning with those areas which can be most easily agreed upon” (Oberdorfer 2001, 407). He lowered barriers to trade with North Korea and met with Western leaders to win cooperation for the policy.
North Korea itself, for whatever motives, repeatedly put obstacles in the path of Kim’s attempts at engagement. In June 1998 a North Korean submarine was found caught in South Korean fishing nets, and its crew was captured. The sub was of a special Yugo class of small subs the DPRK used to drop off spies and commandos (as it had attempted to do in a similar incident in 1996), and three weeks later the body of a dead North Korean commando was discovered off the South Korean coast.
Kim Dae Jong, at some risk to his political reputation, chose to take the incident as an attempt by hard-liners within the DPRK to derail a process that others in the country favored, and after appropriate measures to step up ROK alertness, he continued to pursue engagement.
In 2000 Kim Dae Jong and Kim Jong Il met in the DPRK capital of Pyongyang, where the two leaders posed for cameras, representatives from the North and South established joint business ventures, and separated Korean families were tearfully united. Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of unification.
Unfortunately, the shadow of scandal later fell over these efforts. After he left office evidence came to light that Kim Dae Jung had bribed the DPRK to participate, with payments of at least $150 million. Long before this “cash-for-summit” scandal broke, however, the Sunshine Policy had fallen victim to North Korea’s apparent ambitions to become a nuclear weapons state and to U.S. president George W.
Bush’s deci-sion to label North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union speech. Another unrelated scandal helped dampen enthusiasm for Kim Dae Jung’s presidency: In 2002 his son Kim Hong Up was found guilty of bribery, fined more than $400,000, and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. His two other sons also were convicted on corruption charges.
Despite Kim Hong Up’s conviction for bribery and despite an econ-omy that was falling again, Kim successfully promoted his pick for a successor, a relatively obscure former human rights lawyer and minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries named Roh Moo Hyun (1946–2009). After a campaign in which he emphasized his willingness to stand up to the United States—even saying that Korea might remain “neutral” in a war between the United States and the DPRK—Roh won a narrow vic-tory over his rival, Lee Hoi Chang (b. 1935) who had previously been defeated by Kim Dae Jung.