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For One Old Soldier, The Battle Is Over

5 minute read
Donald Macintyre/Seoul

When I met Kim Dae Jung some weeks ago, I was struck by how the years had caught up with him. He shuffled slowly into an elegant reception room at his official residence and proffered a hand that felt too soft, the skin papery thin and blotched with liver spots. His clothes hung loosely on his frame. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the feisty democracy fighter who had once faced down South Korea’s generals looked ready to turn in his sword. After all, his official birthday has him turning 77. (His friends say he is closer to 80.) As we settled down to chat, Kim suggested I remove my jacket given the warmth of the room: “They have set the temperature higher to suit my old age.”

It’s not just age, however, that makes Kim appear frail. When he came to office nearly five years ago, he was a towering moral figure — Asia’s Nelson Mandela, according to his many admirers. Jailed, beaten and threatened with death, he was the face of the struggle for democracy in South Korea. You felt he had the chance to become not just a good President but a great one. But with barely three months to go before he hands over power to the winner of South Korea’s Dec. 19 presidential election, Kim has become a lonely, almost tragic figure, deeply unpopular, politically spent and increasingly irrelevant.

It isn’t the end I imagined when I watched Kim on a day few Koreans thought would ever come: his inauguration on Feb. 25, 1998. Political rivals, diplomats, even pop stars were in attendance as he swore the oath of office under a clear blue winter sky on the steps of the National Assembly. The mood wasn’t festive — South Korea was in the throes of the Asian financial crisis (appropriately, the inaugural music included Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water ). But it was a soaring, hopeful moment for the nation, the first peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in half a century.

Fast-forward to today, and kill the music. A deep sense of disappointment has replaced the promise of the inauguration. A President who came to office pledging to end what Koreans call “money politics” has seen two of his three sons convicted of corruption in the past six months. In the eyes of average Koreans, Kim might as well have taken the bribes himself. Kim spent much of his presidency trying to coax North Korea’s reclusive Kim Jong Il out of his lair. His unprecedented trip to Pyongyang in June 2000 lifted the hopes of millions of Koreans, won him the Nobel Peace Prize, and looked as if it would be his greatest legacy. But in the end, even the President’s nordpolitik came to seem flawed. North Korea’s recent disclosure of a secret nuclear arms program drove a stake through his cherished policy of rapprochement. After gambling so much on North Korea’s leader, Kim will leave office savoring the sour taste of betrayal.

The irony is that Kim achieved much by the standards of most presidencies. Yanking South Korea out of the Asian crisis in record time, he laid the foundations for a more trans-parent, competitive economy — and the brisk growth his country is enjoying today. Under his watch, South Korea became more democratic, wired and hip. The summer’s World Cup showed Kool Korea’s younger generation at its exuberant best. Kim himself was never cool — he looked a little silly trying to pass as a football fan with a starchy new baseball cap perched awkwardly on his head. But he enabled the establish-ment of a freer, more open and globalized society.

Koreans are harsh on their leaders, expecting them to build Camelots. But in some ways, Kim has himself to blame. Even his supporters say he was better as an opposition leader than as a President. His habit of relying on a small clique of family and friends and a self-confidence border-ing on arrogance helped him survive as a dissident. As President, that trait was a liability. Kim ran an imperial presidency — while he fought for democracy, he never fully understood that its rules applied to him as well.

At the Blue House, I walked with Kim to the lawn to have some pictures of him taken beside a bed of red and white roses. The four presidential dogs were barking from their pen in a corner of the lawn. Kim settled into a chair, relaxed and asked after my wife. He could have been any Korean grandfather entertaining a younger visitor. He told me he was planning to become “an ordinary citizen” after he left the presidency. As the sun dipped behind the green-blue ceramic eaves of the Korean-style residence, to become a regular Korean seemed the best he could hope for. He waved good-bye and shuffled back inside. An aide whispered to him: “The minister is waiting.” Not for much longer. Kim Dae Jung’s term, which began so full of promise, ends sadly, with an old man unwanted by his people.

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