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  HOME : President : A Biographical Sketch  
     
  A Long March Toward Democracy and Human Rights

A Young Man with a Dream

President Kim was born on December 3, 1925 on a small island off the southwestern tip of the peninsula as the second son of a sharecropper for a Japanese landowner. When he was in the fourth grade, he was transferred to an Elementary School in Mokpo, the nearest port city on the mainland. He graduated from the Bukkyo school in 1939 and then entered the five-year Mokpo Commercial High School.
As he was growing up, he experienced the pain of being under Japanese colonial rule. In one instance, he was removed as the class captain after writing a short class essay criticizing the Japanese. These circumstances led him to develop a special interest in history and politics as well as the arts. The broad horizon of the sea and waves that pounded the shore of the island inspired him with dreams and courage.


Awakened to a Political Career

After graduating from high school in 1943, he got a job at a shipping company, which qualified him for exemption from conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army. And when Korea was liberated at the end of the Second World War in 1945, he was quite a successful young businessman in the maritime transportation business. After the Korean War (1950-53), he continued in the shipping business and published a local newspaper.
He then decided to enter politics as President Seungman Lee was becoming increasingly dictatorial. In 1954, at the age of 29, he made his first bid to the legislature of the republic as an independent candidate but failed. After one more unsuccessful attempt, Kim Dae-jung was elected to the National Assembly in a bi-election in 1961, but, within three days of his election, the Assembly was closed down by a military junta that toppled an elected government in a coup d'etat.



A Politician with Courage and Vision

In the general election in 1963, Kim Dae-jung won a seat on an opposition ticket and quickly emerged as a politician with courage and vision. After serving as the spokesman for the Democratic Party in 1965, he became chairman of the Policy Planning Committee the next year. When his party merged with other opposition groups in 1967, he was appointed as the spokesman of the newly formed Sinmindang (New Democratic Party).
President Kim was the most frequent visitor to the National Assembly library and became a star lawmaker in parliamentary hearings because of his meticulous preparations. He had the ability to grasp the broad outline as well as minute details of any issue so that he was always able to present constructive criticisms and alternatives. He cultivated specialized knowledge by serving as a member of various National Assembly standing committees, including finance, construction, foreign affairs, budget and national defense.
In 1969, when he delivered a historic speech in an outdoor opposition rally in Seoul against a constitutional revision plan aimed at allowing President Park to a third term. With the address, he was able to generate a movement to unify the opposition parties, which had been mired in defeatism, and renew hope for the restoration of democracy. In 1971, he became the presidential candidate of the New Democratic Party, pitted against Park Jeong-hui and garnered no less than 46 percent of the votes in spite of all kinds of illegal and corrupt electioneering by the ruling camp.

Perils to His Life

His challenge to Park Jeong-hui's iron-fisted rule was the beginning of nearly three decades of hardship and tribulation. Barely holding onto the presidency with a slim margin, Park swore that he would suffer no more of the torment and humiliation of direct elections. In October 1972, he imposed marital law, banned all political activities and subsequently rammed the Yusin (Revitalizing Reforms) Constitution through the National Assembly, giving the president nearly unlimited power for life. Unprecedented suppression of all opposition to his policies soon followed.
It was only logical that Kim Dae-jung, who had mounted the most formidable challenge to the Park regime, was a particular target of suppression. President Kim was travelling abroad when the Yusin measures were imposed, and he led anti-Park campaigns in the United States and Japan. In August 1973, he was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel by agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
In fact, the original plot had been to "eliminate" him completely. However, strong protests from the U.S and Japanese authorities resulted in his release in Seoul a week later. But he was immediately placed under house arrest.

Kim Dae-jung did not succumb to this or other attempts to silence him. On March 1, 1976, he, along with other democratic figures, issued the "March First Declaration for Democratization," reigniting the pro-democracy movement. Subsequently, he was sentenced to five years in prison. When he was released in December 1978, he was placed under house arrest again.

On October 26, 1979, President Park Jeong-hui was assassinated by one of his close aides. Two months later, Kim was freed from house arrest and had his civil and political rights restored in an amnesty. However, after a short-lived period of free political activities, dubbed the "Spring of Seoul," he was thrown into prison again in May 1980 on charges of treason by the martial law authorities who had carried out a virtual coup d'etat.

In November, he was sentenced to death by a court martial. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment and then to 20 years in prison. In December 1982, his prison term was suspended, and he went to the United States, his second period of foreign exile. During these agonizing days, he faced brutal torture, suppression and all imaginable types of temptation. But he did not cease his struggle for the promotion of democracy. After he returned to Korea in 1985, he was repeatedly subjected to periods of house arrest.



Road to Victory

The pro-democracy movement in Korea gained great momentum with massive popular protests in June 1987 and, the following month, Kim was cleared of all outstanding charges and his full political rights were restored. Subsequently, the Constitution was revised to restore direct elections of the President. Although Kim was again defeated in presidential elections in 1987 and 1992, he did not give up his goal of realizing a true democracy and continued to prepare himself for the presidency.
Finally, in his fourth presidential bid in December 1997, he was elected by garnering 40.3 percent of the vote. On the following February 25, he was sworn in to become the eighth President of the Republic of Korea.
This marked the first transition of political power from the ruling to an opposition party. It was a triumph for all Koreans as well as a personal victory for Kim who had endured nearly four decades of political suppression and hardship.