Kim Dae-jung, human rights champion and former South Korean president, dies

Former South Korea President Kim Dae-jung died on Tuesday, aged 85. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at reconciliation with North Korea, he leaves a legacy of commitment to human rights and democracy.

A former prisoner of conscience, Kim Dae-jung was a lifelong activist who sought to raise the profile of human rights both in South Korea and around the world. Once a death row inmate, he was a tireless campaigner against the death penalty.

“Kim Dae-jung was a hero and inspiration to Amnesty International and many people around the world for his uncompromising stance and struggle for democracy in South Korea during the seventies and eighties,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Irene Khan.

“Amnesty International is privileged to have campaigned on his behalf, as prisoner of conscience, during his years of imprisonment and when he was given the death sentence.”

Kim Dae-jung was considered a dangerous radical in the 1970s and 1980s, during South Korea’s decades of military dictatorship. He survived assassination and abduction attempts, walked free from a death sentence and was exiled twice.

Over several video interviews with Amnesty International in April, Kim Dae-jung discussed his childhood (he was the son of a middle-class farmer), his experiences as a prisoner of conscience, the attempt on his life in Tokyo in 1973 and his time as president. One of the main topics of conversation though, was the death penalty. He said:

“A human should not kill a human. We need to abolish the death penalty in Asia…If the death penalty were abolished, it would change the atmosphere in Asia and also have a positive knock-on effect in Central & South America and Africa and the rest of the world…the issue of death penalty is one of the most serious issues confronting human beings, and I hope that, if possible, the Asian countries will set an example in sorting out this problem.”

As a human rights activist, Kim Dae-jung was subjected to human rights violations for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

He was kidnapped in Tokyo’s Grand Palace hotel in 1973 by South Korean agents. He was dragged to a ship where he said they planned to dump him at sea. The US government intervened to save him and the agents then abandoned their plan. The assassination attempt was in apparent response to his public opposition to the rewriting of the Constitution, which gave more power to General Park Chung-hee, the country’s military ruler.

Kim Dae-jung spent much of the 1970s under house arrest or in prison. It was during this period that he was first adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

He was arrested in March 1976, as a prominent signatory of a “Declaration for National Democratic Salvation”. He was arrested again in May 1980, just before the Kwangju Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of civilians who had risen up against the military dictatorship. He was accused of having “instigated” agitation. He was sentenced to death in September 1980.

Amnesty International, and many other human rights and pressure groups, campaigned vigorously on Kim Dae-jung’s behalf throughout that period.

In 1981, following widespread international protests and campaigning by international organizations, his death sentence was commuted; in 1982 he was released on a “suspended” sentence. He then went to live in Boston where he taught at Harvard University.

In February 1985, he was placed under house arrest again on the day he returned from two years’ exile in the USA. House arrest and harassment continued until February 1986.

During a visit to London in 1993, Kim Dae-jung presented Amnesty International with calligraphy he had written, of four Chinese characters meaning “All Nations are One Family”.

He was elected President of South Korea in December 1997. It was the first time in the country’s history that the power of government had been passed from the ruling party president to an opposition leader.

During his presidency Kim-Dae-jung became the first and so far only Korean to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. This was for his instigation of the so-called “Sunshine Policy”, promoting closer ties with communist North Korea.

Kim-Dae-jung’s term as President of South Korea ended in 2003.

“As fellow Nobel Laureates, we were honoured to share President Kim’s ardent opposition to the death penalty, and we were moved by his dedication to campaigning for human rights,” said Irene Khan.