When Kim Jong Il died last month, it made headlines. When Kim Geun-Tae died just a few days ago, it merited only a small obituary in U.S. newspapers (if at all).
Kim Geun-Tae deserved more. He was an extraordinary political figure who survived terrible torture in South Korea in the 1980s to become one of its leading politicians.
I first met Kim Geun-Tae in 1998 when he was serving in parliament. He was a soft-spoken man who was passionately interested in promoting peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula. At the time, he was one of the leading supporters of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s plan to reach out to North Korea. But he was also very clear that the progressive group supporting the “sunshine policy” was a minority in the South Korean government – even with the president’s imprimatur. He was hopeful that the involvement of large corporations like Hyundai in inter-Korean efforts such as the Mt. Geumgang tourism project would give the “sunshine policy” greater legitimacy in what was still a very conservative society.
Thanks to his efforts, the “sunshine policy” did indeed achieve concrete accomplishments, such as providing South Koreans with a more clear-eyed view of their northern brethren, giving South Koreans a chance to visit North Korea in large numbers, and establishing cooperative economic ventures such as the Kaesong industrial complex located just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Even with the frost that has descended on North-South relations over the last several years, Kim Geun-Tae’s work still serves as the basis for any future reunification project.
Kim Geun-Tae never achieved the prominence of other South Korean politicians such as Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. But he showed how it was possible to transform han – a Korean term that translates roughly into “suppressed feelings of anger and injustice” – into a force for political change. When in 2000, his torturer finally emerged from hiding, Kim Geun-Tae courageously forgave him. It must not have been an easy decision to make. But it is through such difficult decisions that an enduring democracy is made.