Kim Dae Jung: A Future Leader’s Moment of Truth

Michael Armacost and
Michael Armacost Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow, Stanford University
Richard Holbrooke
Richard Holbrooke Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan

December 24, 1997

The election of Kim Dae Jung as President of South Korea is as astonishing, in its own way, as that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Each was labeled a dangerous subversive by his country’s ruling establishment; each was jailed for years and faced death for his beliefs, and each survived to become his nation’s leader.

Mr. Kim faced death several times in his remarkable life, but never more clearly than at the end of 1980, when he was in a South Korean jail with his health deteriorating. After a staged trial, the military regime of President Chun Doo Hwan sentenced him to death, claiming he was a traitor and a secret supporter of North Korea.

The Carter Administration informed the Korean generals that the execution of Mr. Kim would have disastrous consequences. Seoul delayed his execution while awaiting the results of the 1980 Presidential election in the United States. Their preference for a Reagan victory was clear; they expected that the Republicans would be more sympathetic than President Carter, who had lectured the Koreans about human rights during his trip to Seoul in 1979.

After Ronald Reagan’s victory in November, Washington received solid information through several channels that the Korean generals now felt free to execute Mr. Kim, and planned to do so before Mr. Reagan’s inauguration.

We were then Assistant Secretary of State and senior Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, respectively. We knew that relations between the outgoing Administration and the Republicans coming to power were marked by suspicion and distrust, especially at the higher levels. Acting on our own, we requested a meeting with Richard Allen, who was set to become Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser.

In late November we called on Mr. Allen in his temporary transition offices. Our message was simple. “The Carter Administration managed to keep Kim Dae Jung alive for the last few months,” we said. “But we cannot do so any longer unless you send an immediate signal to Seoul in the name of President-elect Reagan. We are virtually certain Kim will be dead before the inauguration unless you act immediately.” We shared with Mr. Allen sensitive intelligence information to show that we were not exaggerating the danger.

Mr. Allen, who knew Korea well, understood both the substance of the message and its political implications. He did not want the new Administration to begin with a crisis in Korea. In addition, Mr. Allen understood that if Mr. Kim were executed the incoming Administration would be blamed.

Traditionally, incoming administrations do not take any policy action during transitions. As the saying goes, “We only have one President at a time.” This unusual situation, however, required an exception.

With our encouragement, Mr. Allen contacted President Chun and told him that President-elect Reagan was opposed to Mr. Kim’s execution. Mr. Allen held out the possibility of the first state visit of the Reagan Administration, but only if the sentence was commuted. Mr. Chun accepted, and he visited Washington and stayed at Blair House in February 1981.

Despite heavy press criticism of the Reagan Administration for “coddling dictators,” this deal — never made public — saved Mr. Kim’s life. Kim Dae Jung, the man whom the military considered a crypto-Communist and wanted to kill, took a fellowship at Harvard. As Korea moved slowly toward democracy, with American encouragement, Mr. Kim returned to his country. Now he is about to sit at its pinnacle of power — something no one thought possible only a few years ago.

Meanwhile, history plays its astonishing tricks. Mr. Chun, the man who wanted to execute Kim Dae Jung, now sits in jail, having been condemned to death himself for corruption. And Kim Dae Jung’s first act as President-elect was to ask the incumbent President of Korea, Kim Young Sam (himself a former dissident), to grant Mr. Chun amnesty and release him and another former President, Roh Tae Woo, also a general, from jail.

Richard Holbrooke was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs in the Carter Administration. Michael Armacost, his deputy, later served as Under Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration.