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Kim's Deeds Go Beyond the Peninsula

October 15, 2000|ROBERT DUJARRIC | Robert Dujarric is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. He is the author of "Korea After Unification" (Hudson Institute, 2000)

President Kim Dae Jung's Nobel Peace Prize caps a year of momentous developments in Korean affairs. In June the two Korean leaders held an unprecedented summit. This week Cho Myong Nok, one of North Korea's top officials, visited the White House, and President Clinton might travel to North Korea before his term expires.

President Kim's Nobel prize rewards his diplomatic efforts in bringing about reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. His engagement policy marks the beginning of a process that might, over several years, lead to peace and eventual reunification. In pursuing this policy he incurred significant risks. The North has, so far, been unwilling to make concessions and Kim has been strongly criticized by opposition politicians who accuse him of making unilateral gestures to the enemy.

It may take many years to find out if Kim's gamble with the North has paid off.

If engagement with the North works, it will bring peace to the peninsula and better living conditions for the oppressed people of the North. If it does not, it will have been a worthwhile try. Fortunately the South, because it is so much stronger and richer, can afford to make unreciprocated concessions without jeopardizing its security.

Kim, however, deserves the peace prize for much more than his attempt at normalization with North Korea. Under his leadership, relations between Korea and Japan have improved to an extent that no expert could have predicted a few years ago. With his personal charisma, coupled with the credibility his personal life history of suffering and redemption has given him, he engaged the Japanese government and the Japanese people. By focusing on the future rather than the past he facilitated the apology Japan made for past Japanese actions in Korea and he has thus freed Korean-Japanese relations from the burden of the past.

Much remains to be done, but the achievements of the past few years are impressive. Japan and Korea have developed much stronger ties. Due to frequent high-level contacts between Seoul and Tokyo, the process of normalization between North Korea-South Korea and Japan-North Korea has not created suspicion between South Korea and Japan. This is a major development because historically South Korea had feared that Japan might undermine its position in its dealings with the North, and Japan was disturbed at the possibility that a North-South entente might be anti-Japanese.

Improving Japanese-Korean ties may turn out to be Kim's greatest achievement. The harshness of Japanese rule in Korea (1905-1945) left a residue of virulent anti-Japanese feeling. South Korea suffered because, as a medium-sized nation locked in confrontation with North Korea, it needs the diplomatic and economic backing of Japan. Moreover, if and when Korea unifies, Korea will need economic assistance from Japan. Japan's security requires peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and good relations with South Korea are essential to achieve that goal. In addition, Japan will have a stake in unified Korea not being anti-Japanese. Finally, the United States security architecture in Asia is based on its alliances with Japan and Korea. The more its allies cooperate with each other, the easier it is for the United States to manage regional security affairs.

Last but not least, Kim's Nobel prize rewards Korea's transition to liberal democracy. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea modernized its economy at breakneck speed, but its politics remained archaic and run by military strongmen. Kim's election to the presidency symbolized Korea's transition to liberal democracy. He is a man who had been a political prisoner under sentence of death who became president and his defeated opponents remained free. Kim's fate illustrates the gap between the dynamism of Asia's new liberal democracies, South Korea and Taiwan and China. Gao Xingjian, who just won the Nobel for literature, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and Kim Dae Jung were all dissidents. But Gao, who fled his native China, is now a French citizen living in a small apartment near Paris, whereas Kim resides in the Blue House (Seoul's presidential mansion) and Chen is Taiwan's president.

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