Our world is heavily divided along the lines of religion, ethnicity, and political ideology. This often results in conflict that robs the society of its growth and development. Kim Dae Jung is one remarkable individual that has strived to build peace across dividing lines in Korea thereby earning him the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize of 2000. He was awarded the prize in recognition of his “efforts in strengthening democracy and upholding human rights in South Korea and East Asia in general and for peace and reconciliation in particular.”
Born in Sinan, South Korea on 6 January 1924 during the Japanese colonial rule, Kim soon relocated to the port city of Mokpo with his family to finish high school. He was forced to adopt the Japanese name- Toyota Taichū as a result of the name-changing programs enforced by the Japanese at the time. Upon graduation from the Mokpo Commercial Middle School in 1943, he worked as a clerk at a Japanese-owned shipping company and moved up the ranks to become its manager. He became involved in politics, winning seats in the National Assembly in 1963 and 1967 and eventually ending up as South Korean president from 1998 to 2003. Although his education was limited to high school, his political exploits led him to become Visiting Lecturers at Harvard and Cambridge universities. He died on 18 August 2009 and was the second person in Korea’s history to be given a state funeral witnessed by a delegate from North Korea.
Kim, in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize, recounted his dramatic rescue from South Korean intelligence agents in 1973 who had sought to assassinate him, exclaiming that “I have lived, and continue to live, in the belief that God is always with me”.
As students and youth activists who desire peace work, below are key peacebuilding lessons from the life and work of Kim:
1. Persistently pursue your goals: To achieve his political ambitions, Kim gave up the business world and went into politics in which he lost four elections between 1954 to 1960. When he eventually got elected as a representative for the National Assembly, Park Chung-Hee seized power only 2 days after in a coup and voided the elections. Kim persisted and later won a seat in the House in the subsequent elections in 1963 and 1967 and went on to become an eminent opposition leader. He also lost the presidential elections twice in 1971 and 1992 while surviving an assassination attempt on his life in 1973. Kim’s travails included imprisonment in 1976 and house arrests in 1978 and 1987 as well as a death sentence in 1980 that was commuted to 20 years in prison. His journey to limelight was full of many rough edges that can warrant him to back-off, still, he kept pressing on. Kim’s act of persistence should be a lesson to all young peacebuilders that our call is greater than the fall. A lot of things can serve as an impediment to our advocacy like hostile environment, unfavourable government policies amongst others. These factors have swayed many off their stand and short change the intended purpose of their vision.
2. Make up your mind to build bridges and not fences: Earl Nightingale said: “Your problem is to bridge the gap which exists between where you are now and the goal you intend to reach”. Our core value as peacebuilders is to ensure a society where tranquillity matter. We should serve as mediators by bridging existing gaps and not fences to discriminate against people. This was achieved by Kim with Sunshine Policy when he became the President. He sought to mitigate the gap in economic power with a rich South and a poverty-stricken North and restored lost communication between South and North Korea after the official division in 1948 and civil war between 1950 to 1953. His ideas formed the cornerstone of his country’s foreign policy towards North Korea that was meant to soften North Koreas attitude towards South Korea, an idea built on the traditional Korean ways of dealing with enemies by giving them gifts to prevent them from causing harm.
3. Promote Inclusivity: Kim came from a region that was neglected and less developed by past administrations but he ran an inclusive government by making sure his region was not over-represented. As the eighth President of South Korea; he was the first person to take the baton of power from opposition peacefully in Korean history. Kim after retiring from active politics called for restraint against the North Koreans for detonating a nuclear weapon and defended the continued Sunshine Policy towards Pyongyang to defuse the crisis. He also received an honorary doctorate at the University of Portland on 17 April 2008 where he delivered his speech, ‘Challenge, Response, and God’. Our strategies as peacebuilder should embrace inclusivity to capture all stakeholders of the society and the resultant effect of those strategies should be long-term focused which will address present situations and make provision for future occurrences.
In conclusion, the life and times of Kim left a great legacy for peacebuilders- make sure to leave the world better than you met it! Become a changemaker today!!
Member, Program Unit,
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation