Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kim Dae-Jung, RIP

The death of Kim Dae-Jung brings me back to my time in South Korea in 1996 and 1997. Kim took power in 1998, but he was of course already a major player in Korean politics at the time. It was an interesting time to be in South Korea. The economy was beginning to falter (I left about 4 weeks before the economic collapse), attitudes toward the North were beginning to soften, and the country's former dictators had been sentenced to death for their crimes (a sentence which of course was not carried out). The nation's youth were vibrantly expressing their country's modernism, yet women still often dressed in traditional outfits. The nation had rapidly modernized since hosting the Olympics 8 years before, but pockets of a pre-industrial society existed.

Kim epitmoized this period of Korean history. He was a great reformer and took great steps to cool tensions with the North. On the other hand, he was as deeply enmeshed in the culture of corruption that helped bring down the Asian Tigers in 1997. His administration became tarnished by this corruption but he also filled a deep psychic hole in the Korean heart. This nation was obsessed, and I mean OBSESSED, over the fact that no Korean had ever won a Nobel Prize. They talked about this all the time. In one of Seoul's largest bookstores, they had portraits of various Nobel Prize winners but left one spot open for that first Korean. This was a nation still insecure in its place in the pantheon of world power players. While I wasn't there when Kim won for his work on North Korea, I can imagine the outpouring of joy that took place.

Kim was a flawed leader for sure, but he's still arguably the best president South Korea has had. That's not a tough group of men to best, but nonetheless, he deserves to be remembered positively.