Kim Dae Jung’s most recent brush with death began on the night of May 17, 1980, when he was awakened by angry shouts and pounding at the gate of his home in Seoul, South Korea. Outside were some 30 soldiers armed with rifles and carrying orders for the arrest of Kim, the country’s leading opposition politician. Four months later a military court sentenced him to be hanged for “masterminding” a plot to overthrow the U.S.-backed government. Kim’s supporters branded the case an outright fabrication. Calling the charges “farfetched,” the U.S. State Department pressured the South Koreans not to execute him, and his sentence was commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment. Last December, after two years in solitary confinement, Kim, 57, was sent into exile in the U.S.—ostensibly for medical treatment. “I didn’t come to this country willingly,” he says stubbornly. “I intend to go home, even if it means going back to prison.”
If Kim sounds defiant rather than grateful, he has good reason. For nearly 30 years he has waged a dangerous and unavailing struggle to restore democracy in South Korea. The country’s strongman ruler, President Chun Doo Hwan, regards Kim as a rabble-rouser who could throw South Korea into turmoil and encourage an attack by Communist North Korea. Kim’s friends say he is dangerous only at the ballot box. In the 1971 elections—the last opportunity South Koreans had to vote for the President of their choice—the charismatic Kim attracted 46 percent of the vote. It was a fright the military leaders never forgot or forgave.
Though the South Korean government has tried to smear him as being a Communist, it has produced no evidence to support the allegation. Indeed, before he entered politics at 29, Kim was a capitalist who made a fortune in shipping and newspapers. As a civilian during the Korean War (1950-53), he was captured by North Koreans and narrowly escaped a firing squad. Harvard Law School lecturer and East Asian expert Jerome Alan Cohen describes Kim as “a blend of Jeffersonian democrat and Roman Catholic. It’s silly to call him Communist.”
Kim first learned he was a marked man soon after his near victory in 1971. A heavy truck veered across the highway, striking the politician’s car a glancing blow. He suffered a hip injury, but three people were killed in the car behind his. “It was a deliberate plot to kill me by people close to the government,” Kim asserts. “One of them later confessed it to me.”
The government’s next attempt on Kim’s life was like an episode out of a spy thriller. In August 1973 operatives of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) kidnapped him from a hotel room in Tokyo. They took him aboard a ship and later brought him up on deck. “They bound my hands and my feet and gagged me with a piece of wood. Then they tied on 60 or 70 pounds of weights. I realized they were going to dump me in the ocean.” At that moment, Kim says, a plane flew low over the ship and the agents ran belowdecks. Minutes later a sailor approached. “Aren’t you Kim Dae Jung?” he asked. “I voted for you. I think your life is spared.” Kim was returned to South Korea, and later learned that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had interceded in his behalf.
Although the government-controlled press was not allowed to mention his name favorably after the 1971 election, Kim remained the focus of political opposition. He was constantly either imprisoned or under surveillance. “I was not ashamed,” he says. “I was working with distinguished people doing the right thing for our country in trying to restore democracy.”
During his latest prison sentence, Kim’s will cracked. “I felt a sense of loneliness I’d never had before,” he admits. “By branding me a Communist I felt they had totally isolated me from the people. This was much more fearful and intolerable than death.”
As Kim wavered, his wife, Lee Hee Ho, who keeps her maiden name according to Korean custom, wrote him 604 letters while he was in prison. She made the five-hour round trip to the Chonju prison 167 times, although she was permitted to see him on only 34 of those occasions. “The love between my wife and me has made me very happy,” says Kim. “I am at peace.”
Today the couple are living in an Alexandria, Va. apartment with their son Kim Hong Gul, 19, and Kim Hong Up, 32, one of Kim’s two sons from an earlier marriage. Georgetown University Hospital is providing free treatment for Kim’s arthritic hip, a lingering reminder of his 1971 highway encounter. He is considering offers from several U.S. universities, but insists he will not settle permanently in America.
Korean immigrants in America have given Kim a hero’s welcome, and wealthy businessmen among them have gathered around him in smoke-filled rooms to pledge their financial support. A Korean-born jeweler, who asked not to be named, appointed himself chauffeur and bodyguard during Kim’s recent trip to New York. He was solicitous to the point of reverence—helping his charge into an overcoat and standing guard at a hotel room door. “He may never be our President,” said the jeweler, “but he is impressed in the soul of the Korean people. He is a great man.”