The Chosun one

The Chosun one

Tom Plate eulogizes the late South Korea President Kim Dae-jung, whose passing unites the Korean peninsula for a moment

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Los Angeles --- He had all about him the sense of a man of destiny, someone who was aware of living his life at some level above himself.

Though sometimes too full of haughty egotism and regional provincialism, Kim Dae-jung was indeed the prophetic pathfinder his fellow South Koreans required in their mass march out of military dictatorship and corporate feudalism -- and into the 21st century of participatory democracy and economic maturity.

Perhaps his best years took place in the early part of this decade. In 2000 he became the first Korean ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts (later discovered to have involved the passing of under-the-table cash to the North) with the implacable dictator Kim Jong-il. That recognition was worth celebrating nonetheless. So was the underdog South Korean National Team's astonishing rise to the final four of the 2002 World (Football/Soccer) Cup competition. With both achievements South Korea seemed to come of age.

It was Kim's vision, however, that Korea would lack full maturity until its two halves were made one. His dream of eventual unification between the Koreans of the North and South was the political football he would kick around his entire life.

Kim died in a Seoul hospital bed at 85 earlier this week. One of the many international visitors streaming to his bedside was an American, a former CIA official whose dramatic interventions saved the Korean politician from assassination on one occasion and from execution on another. (Someday the CIA's positive role in aiding the Korean democracy movement will become full public knowledge.) South Korea's feral political culture tends to try to eat its prominent political figures the way some gerbils and muskrats eat their young. South Korean presidents wind up going to prison; the past one committed suicide in May with jackals biting at his feet and reputation.

The Korean news media always painted Kim as a naïve leftist, a silly liberal -- even a dangerous revolutionary. On the contrary, he was none of those above but a deep-rooted cultural conservative from an outer province of the country. His overwhelming passion for a united Korea was almost reactionary in its reality: to bring all Korea back into one Chosun kingdom.

History may record that Kim was very much like another historic conservative who fought to keep his people together in the face of adversity: Winston Churchill. Only the carefully measured words of the late great Oxford don Isaiah Berlin suffice here: "It is an error to regard the imagination as a mainly revolutionary force -- if it destroys and alters, it also fuses hitherto isolated beliefs, insights, mental habits, into strongly unified systems. These, if they are filled with sufficient energy and force of will -- and, it may be added, fantasy, which is less frightened by the facts and creates ideal models in terms of which the facts are ordered in the mind -- sometimes transform the outlook of an entire people and generation."

Kim may have come closer to realizing that transformation than is generally appreciated. His unprecedented visit in 2000 to Pyongyang, North Korea, to summit with his Kim counterpart caught the world's imagination. Despite the subsequent controversy over that ploy, this South Korean always remained on the global radar. That is still the case even in death: this weekend, Seoul is expected to come to a virtual halt for the first time since 2002 for his titanic state funeral. Even a delegation from North Korea will be attending -- the first ever for such an event.

(Let us note: If Washington cannot read anything in that tea-leaf -- especially following the North's recent release of two American journalists to visiting former President Bill Clinton and the unexpected official visit of a delegation to New Mexico for a chat with Governor Bill Richardson, a notable past intermediary to the North -- then the U.S. establishment has become diplomatically blind.)

It just may be that South Korea will take from Kim's death the imagination to be less frightened by the gruesome facts of North Korea and create an ideal model of reconciliation that might transform the outlook of an entire people and generation. This is how one might imagine Kim rising triumphantly from the dead.

Until then, may this great if flawed man -- as all this world's great men and women are greatly flawed -- rest in the deep and just peace of the would-be peacemaker who never gave up the right fight.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.