Interview: Kim Dae Jung

Our People Have Become Desperate



Kim Dae Jung, 58, is South Korea’s leading dissident politician. After spending 2 1/2 years in prison on a sedition charge, he went to the United States in December 1982 for medical treatment. Last month he announced that at the end of this year he would return to South Korea from political exile. Kim recently spoke to Newsweek’s Paul Mooney in New York about his return and the political situation in South Korea.


Mooney: Why did you decide that you would return to South Korea?

Kim: By the end of this year I will have been here for two years and I have tried hard to support our people. But now it is time for me to go back and join them in their struggle for the restoration of democracy. Another reason is that I see a serious crisis in the Korean political climate. More than 90 percent of our people don’t support the Chun Doo Hwan regime, but they are reluctant to participate in the struggle for democracy because they have become desperate and apolitical. This is because of their disappointment with the dictatorship, the corruption and the huge gap between haves and have-nots. Even though there are many Chun opponents, we have not yet achieved our goal.

Of course Chun is not strong enough to crush us completely. There is a stalemate between both sides. At the same time, some of our people are becoming radical, even accepting communism or becoming anti-American, because of their anger and disappointment with the present situation. If the situation continues, within several years it will be beyond my ability to handle it, and there will be no hope for the restoration of democracy and peaceful reunification.

Q. But you are still on South Korea’s list of banned politicians. 

A.I can’t participate in political activities, and I don’t want to. But even if I am banned I have the right to advocate human rights and democracy. That is a basic right of all human beings. This should not be considered a political activity; even if the government accuses me of violating the law I will not obey. Government must exist to protect our basic rights, not to destroy them.

Q. Some critics have said that you no longer have a strong following in Korea. What is your response to that? 

A. There is no freedom of speech in South Korea and so there is no real public opinion. I don’t know how much of a following I have. But when I see the government’s attitude, I think that I must be clearly supported by our people. If not, why did the South Korean government expel me to this country? Why do they not allow the mass media to mention my name? Why must they threaten me not to come back? They try to intimidate me by saying that they are going to rearrest me. If I do not have the support of the people why should they do so? If Chun feels he has the support of the people, why does he suppress public opinion? He can allow the people freedom of speech and fair elections. These are the requirements for democracy.

Q. One Korean official has said that your return may lead to instability and perhaps even violence. 

A. I definitely deny that assertion. First, if Chun does not arrest me and he deals with me reasonably then there will be no problem. Second, my message is nonviolent and moderate and so there is no reason that my return should create tension or instability. I am willing to have a dialogue with Chun. If we resolve the present deadlock between the government and its democratic opponents then there will be stability and reconciliation. Whether my return will result in the creation of further tension or contribute to instability depends on Chu’s attitude and not on myself. I am Korean and so it is quite natural that I return to my country.

Q. Has the Reagan administration’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” done anything to improve the situation in South Korea? 

A. Partly. As a result of Ronald Reagan’s visit to Seoul earlier this year, (the government) released hundreds of political prisoners and reinstated students and professors who were expelled from the campuses. I recognize such contributions. But there has been no systematic change. There is no possibility of real freedom of speech or fair elections and there is no freedom of assembly. Democratic rights are extremely restricted. There has been no real improvement.

Q.In your opinion, what should the United States do? 

A. Jimmy Carter’s policy was good. He openly advocated human rights and democracy, but he failed to practice it effectively. Now the Reagan administration, in a sense, has made a contribution to bringing about some relaxation of suppression with quiet diplomacy. But that result is somewhat cosmetic. So I urge the Reagan administration to practice both open diplomacy and quiet diplomacy. Our people have developed the impression that the American people only support dictators. They have become somewhat anti-American.

We are not asking America to restore democracy in our stead. We are asking America not to support military dictatorship and to give our people moral support and show us that America supports our democracy, as it did at the end of the Syngman Rhee era in 1960. People in the Third World cannot help becoming apathetic or even anti-American. American policy has greatly contributed to Soviet expansionism around the world. I really don’t want to see America fail again.

Q. What is your answer to the argument that full democracy is not yet possible in South Korea due to the threat from the north? 

A. The security issue can’t justify the present suppression. If we want to establish strong national security, we need something to secure. Security and democracy are inseparable. Over 30 years ago, even during the Korean War, we enjoyed democratic freedoms. But now we have lost them. Because of the enjoyment of those freedoms, during wartime our people had a strong reason to fight against communism and we succeeded in pushing the North Koreans back to the north with the cooperation of U.S. troops. If we restore democracy we can expect the people’s full support for the government. North Korea will have to give up its ambition of conquering South Korea. Then we will have a sincere dialogue with North Korea to establish peace on the Korean peninsula