Commentary Magazine

Prison Writings, by Kim Dae-Jung

Korean Democrat

Prison Writings.
by Kim Dae-Jung.
University of California Press. 333 pp. $25.00.

On a dull Monday morning in June of this year, the presidential choice of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Justice party (DJP), Roh Tae-Woo, stunned the world with his announcement that he would urge President Chun Doo Huan to accept every major reform demanded by the opposition, especially direct presidential elections. Two days later President Chun made it official, and overnight the most violent demonstrations his regime had ever faced ceased, except for outbursts from the more radical students. Next to direct elections, the most significant concession was the restoration of full political and civil rights for Korea’s best-known dissident, Kim Dae-Jung.

The ironies are legion. For one thing, it was the DJP’s nomination of Roh—hand-picked by his old army buddy, Chun himself—that had caused Korea’s hitherto quiet (and burgeoning) middle class to take to the streets in protest. For another, although the reforms restored Kim’s rights they did so at the expense of the aura of martyrdom he had exploited to great effect, particularly with a foreign press corps impressed with his command of English (he studied at Harvard) and his frequent appeals to American democratic principles. That this man once convicted of treason may well become South Korea’s president one day at the very least qualifies any comparison of him with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, such as is drawn on the cover of his new book, Prison Writings, only now available in English.

Written during his last incarceration (1980-82), Prison Writings is a hodgepodge of freelance theology, paternal admonishment, school-masterish sermons on history, often dubious policy assessments, and equally frequent flashes of insight. No stranger to jail cells, Kim wrote the first part of these letters while under sentence of death for what the Chun government claimed was his role in the Kwangju rebellion; after five months his death sentence was lifted, but he was kept in prison for over a year more.



What kind of man emerges from the letters? A democrat, an anti-Communist, and a man possessed of a courage that is in no small measure related to his faith in God. Kim has faced death squarely several times—including once when, kidnapped by Korean intelligence from a Japanese hotel, he would have been thrown into the sea to drown were it not for U.S. intelligence officials monitoring events overhead. He possesses, on this account, a certain undeniable moral credibility—which is not, however, the same thing as having the proper qualifications to run a nation.

Kim’s credibility rests in part on what he is not: namely, a woolly-headed, American-style liberal. Indeed, there are few Koreans of this stripe altogether; if they are not tough-minded opposition liberals or supporters of the government, they are out-and-out Communists. Kim himself invokes the strengths of democracy in facing the Communist threat. “It is an undeniable fact,” he writes, “that the workers and the general populace in countries where it is possible to enjoy both freedom and sufficient bread reject Communism fundamentally.”

This is a powerful argument, one Kim frequently invokes against those who have maintained that South Korea cannot “afford” democracy because it would make the country too unstable to deal with the fanatical regime in the North. Not that Kim, who was imprisoned by the Communists during the Korean war, takes the 38th parallel lightly. “In view of their experience with Hitler,” he writes, the Western powers “should remember how dangerous it is to adopt a conciliatory or submissive position when dealing with the threats of dictators.” On much the same grounds Kim has never demanded a U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea. These eminently sensible positions, one imagines, would ironically place Kim at odds with many of the circles in the West championing his cause.

Throughout his letters Kim also emerges as an equally strong defender of the theory of a free market, and in its name he inveighs against the export-obsessed state capitalism now practiced in Korea. “The most important rule in formulating new economic policy is to adhere to the basic principles of a free economy,” he writes. “Unique situations in countries may produce great differences in the means, but the principle cannot be undermined.”

A startling aspect of Kim’s letters to his family is how little space he devotes to anything but politics, history, and religion. True, he does respond to specific points obviously raised by his wife and children in their letters to him, here warning one son to be careful driving, there discussing another’s studies. (Perhaps the most human moment occurs when he returns a blanket his family has sent him because he dislikes the color.) But such notes seem almost perfunctory, and Kim is quick to jump into higher matters. These—from Korean history to international relations—are dealt with in a hectoring drone no doubt born of loneliness, as if the writer were intent on summing up all he has ever learned in a few lines.

When he is not discussing politics, Kim deals with religion. It is no coincidence that both he and his fellow opposition leader, Kim Young-Sam, are both Christians (Kim Dae-Jung is a Roman Catholic), for the social implications of Christianity are less accommodating to traditional Asian authoritarianism than are those of either Confucianism or Buddhism. And though it is a cliché to say so, Kim’s strong faith is clearly what has helped sustain him during his many adversities. His flights into the religious ether at times make for rough going, but they never degenerate into Carteresque gooiness. Kim is well aware of the hard choices his ideals pose, and has showed himself willing to pay the price.



The religious motif, which dominates the first third of the letters, especially while Kim believes he will be executed, is never far from the other parts. At no time does Kim urge retribution against Chun and the government that put him in jail; “the happiness we derive from becoming Christian consists of loving, not hating, our enemies.” Although this is no more than what might be expected of a prisoner who had to submit all his letters to the censor, Kim has not changed his tune outside the prison gates.

What is the effect of this personal faith on the vision of the man who would be—and very well might be—president? For one thing, Kim’s transnational Christian faith, with its roots in the West, does free him from Eastern chauvinism. Deeply attached as he is to Korean cultural traditions and the strong sense of the family in Asian societies, he can also see its faults. “We are so concerned with formal appearances that we quite disregard practical benefits,” he writes, “while our excessive sensitivity to the issue of losing face often leads us to pretensions we cannot sustain and ultimately to waste.”

On the other hand, Kim has escaped the pitfall of Asian chauvinism only to succumb, at times, to the more sophisticated Christian brand. Not that he ever endorses anything like liberation theology, but he does share its essential approach. Thus Kim notes that Jesus “was executed as a political prisoner by the Jewish ruling class and the Roman empire for standing up for the rights of the oppressed and the poor.” Elsewhere, too, he shares in the hubris of those modern-day Christians who fancy they are the first to own a conscience: “[O]nly since we entered the 20th century has the church begun to uphold the will of the Lord Jesus and the example of the original church.”



Although a jumble of disconnected letters such as Prison Writings can by no means be taken as a crafted political manifesto, it does provide clues to the author’s general orientation and suggest how he would react to specific issues. And here it must be said that Kim’s generally sound principles become singularly uninspiring whenever he proposes to adapt them to a particular situation. Perhaps this is no more than is to be expected, since the books he is forever requesting at the end of his letters are almost entirely drawn from the conventional left-wing establishment: from John Kenneth Galbraith and Gunnar Myrdal to Alvin Toffler and Hans Küng.

Thus, for all his words about the reality of Soviet and Communist power, Kim’s prescription for dealing with it sounds like nothing so much as détente, if of the so-called hard-headed, or Nixonian, variety. Similarly, Kim appears to believe that the “problem” of Third World poverty is that the West is not providing enough aid—a thesis all the more remarkable in light of South Korea’s shining disproof of it.

As for the Middle East, Kim writes that the “Israeli problem,” as he terms it, is the cause of the Arab world’s larger hostility toward the West:

Once this problem [of Palestine] is resolved . . . the Western nations will be able to form harmonious relationships with the Islamic nations, as countries which share monotheistic beliefs. Practical and economic dependence will further facilitate this.

One does not need the extreme example of Iran to appreciate that Islam, anti-Communist though it is, by and large holds Western liberal democracy to be as vile as Communism.



Finally, it should be noted that the author of Prison Writings has been intellectually manhandled by his publishers. The book is badly presented; there is but the barest of introductions to Kim himself, and the reader will not even discover how old he is. The letters themselves are not put into any context; here and there a date is wrong; and the book does not include, or at least does not label, the letters from his wife and the speech he delivered after his release that are promised on the dust-jacket.

Still, these letters do give a good indication of where South Korea would be headed were Kim to lead it: by and large, in a direction not very different from its present one. Those who have met recently with both opposition and government officials have the impression that there is little dividing the two on matters of social and economic policy. What seems to matter is who is in office. Kim himself has done little to dispel this impression in the wake of Korea’s reform, displaying a lust for power equal to that of any five-star Korean general. Certainly this fact has not escaped the notice of the South Korean electorate.

Ironically, freedom itself might yet prove the greatest challenge to a man accustomed to a lifetime of dissent. No longer will Koreans be content with Kim’s incessant demands for “change”: they will want to know exactly what he intends to do and how he proposes to do it. It is quite possible to admire the virtues that make Kim a near-saint while questioning whether they make him fit for the presidency. If the mundane political difficulties in which Kim has found himself since June are any clue, this kind of questioning is exactly what the Korean public seems to have done.



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