Nobel Prize for Peace

October 13, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: South Koreans danced in the streets of Seoul today in celebration of Korean President’s Kim Dae Jung’s Nobel Peace Prize. The political dissident-turned- president won the prize for his struggle for democracy and for his historic moves towards reconciliation with Communist North Korea.

The Korean War ended 47 years ago in a tense truce, and the border between North and South has been a flashpoint ever since, a place where war could break out at anytime. With more than a million soldiers stationed there, it is the most heavily fortified border in the world.

A little more than half the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are deployed at the border too. But since his inauguration nearly three years ago, Kim Dae Jung has eased tensions and, and with the North, taken steps towards real peace. In June, he attended a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in the north’s capital, Pyongyang.

That was immediately followed by reunions for dozens of families separated since the Korean War. Also, both countries agreed to re-open border liaison offices and began to reconstruct a railroad which once linked the two capitals. During an interview with the NewsHour in 1998, Kim Dae Jung described his goals.

JIM LEHRER: In your dream world, do you see North and South Korea coming together again? Is that your goal?

KIM DAE JUNG: To realize peace on the Korean peninsula, and to develop exchange, cooperation between both Koreas, they are the, you know, immediate target of our government. Unification is not our present goal. That is a future program.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Long before he was elected president, Kim, now 75, spent four decades struggling for democracy in South Korea. He entered politics in the 19t0s and became a member of the national assembly in 1961. As the opposition leader he rose to major prominence by nearly defeating then-dictator Park Chung-Hee in 1971. In subsequent years, he spent a total of 15 years either under house arrest in prison or living in exile. He ran three more times for president, finally winning in 1997. In awarding the prize today, the Nobel committee chairman said this:

GUNNAR BERGER: In the course of South Korea’s decades of authoritarian rule, despite repeated threats on his life and long periods in exile, Kim Dae-Jung gradually emerged as the country’s leading spokesman for democracy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kim Dae-Jung said through a spokesman today that the prize deserved to be shared with the South Korean people.

And joining me now is Selig Harrison, a former “Washington Post” bureau chief in Northeast Asia. He’s now director of the Korea Project at the Century Foundation, a public policy group. In your talks with Kim Dae-Jung over the years, what did you learn about the source of this commitment to peace with North Korea?

SELIG HARRISON: He’s had this vision as long as I’ve known him, and this today – the fulfillment – the vision that he’s had throughout his political life. He believes that the military rulers, military dictators that he was opposing were deliberately keeping tensions between North and South Korea at a much higher pitch than they had to be in order to perpetuate their power – scare the people that they had to rally around the military regimes. Of course they didn’t like hearing him say that. One of the reasons they hated him so much and imprisoned him and harassed him and kidnapped him when he was in exile in Japan is precisely because he was always campaigning for better North-South relations, in particularly after the Cold War ended. As it began to end, he could see in the 70s, when I used to talk to him, I used to go to North Korea on trips in a time when not too many people were going there. He would seek me out and want to know about it because it was uppermost on his mind. Then when the military regimes ended, and South Korea continued to have bad relations with North Korea, the reason was that after the death of Kim Il-Sung, Mr. Kim Dae Jung’s predecessor believed could you absorb North Korea, it would be weak, and you’d be able to absorb it like Germany was absorbed. Kim Dae Jung stood for a different position, coexistence eventually leading to a federation, not a unification in the foreseeable future and therefore they trusted him. They recognized he represented a basis for co-existence.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mentioned a couple of things that happened to him because of this commit: Tell us about the kidnapping. I mean, he was almost killed several times.

SELIG HARRISON: He was sentenced to death by the second military dictator, Chun Du Wan. The United States saved him that time, made it a condition for legitimizing the Chun Du Wan regime and dealing with it, that they promise not to carry out the death sentence. But of course they kept him under house arrest, continued to harass him. If he went to see Kim Dae Jung, the military dictatorship was surrounded by plain clothe men. They tried to run him over with a car. He was kidnapped when he went to Japan. He happened to be in Japan at a time when martial law was declared. He wasn’t there when all the opposition leaders were put in jail. So the Korean intelligence kidnapped him from a hotel room in Tokyo where they set up a meeting with some Korean members of the national assembly, put him on a ship, shackled him. He was mistreated, he was beaten up. The Japanese were outraged when they found out that Kim Dae Jung was kidnapped from their own sovereign territory and was out on a ship probably going to be dumped in the ocean. They told the United States which intervened then and he was saved twice by American intervention. That’s one of the reasons he has warm feelings for the United States.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How will this prize affect the reconciliation project, if at all?

SELIG HARRISON: Well, I think that, you know, you could make the case that the prize could have gone to both of them because Kim Il-Sung could have said yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wondered if he’d be angry.

SELIG HARRISON: I don’t know that he’ll be angry. I think he’s a pretty pragmatic guy, which is why he had Kim Dae Jung come in the first place. I think he understands that this was Kim Dae Jung’s initiative that made this happen; that Kim Dae Jung stood up to the hard-liners in South Korea during the period of military rule, after military rule and took this initiative. It was Kim Dae Jung who persuaded the United States that we had to normalize with North Korea. He persuaded Bill Perry, when Secretary Perry became President Clinton’s emissary – we have to relax economic sanctions. So North Korea knows it was Kim Dae Jung’s leadership that got this whole process that is now going on under way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think it will add impetus?

SELIG HARRISON: Yes. I think… No, impetus has to come extra the overall dynamic of the ways in which South Korea can help North Korea, the way North Korea responds by more flexible policies. The way the United States with Secretary Albright going there and maybe President Clinton begins to be more flexible in our military and other policies in the Korean peninsula. But I think what this will do is greatly strength Kim Dae Jung in South Korea. He is a national hero.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A big deal.

SELIG HARRISON: He has given South Korea real national recognition and honor, which they crave. Nationalism is very deep and strong, so this will help him to deal with a lot of the critics in South Korea who are saying what are we getting out of this? We’re going to give them all this money, spent $100 million to buy food that we’re passing on to them. What are they doing for us? So I think he is strengthened politically by this and it is a great plus for our continuing process of reconciliation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Remind us of the broader implications of this reconciliation for Asia and for the United States.

SELIG HARRISON: Well, I think the more that Korea comes closer together and the less there is a division and division in which the United States is on one side, South Korea’s side against North Korea the more you have the emergence of Korea as a buffer state — even if it isn’t formally reunified which it may not be for many years because the leaders in the North don’t want to give up their jobs and their power. So it will take a long time for the transition. But even if it is just a confederation which stabilizes the situation, with one flag up at the DMZ and they’re really one country, that is going to act as a buffer against outside efforts to manipulate the divisions in Korea by Japan, by China, by Russia which historically has been North Korea… has put pressure on North Korea at different times. Japan colonized North Korea and is concerned about Japanese repenetration of the peninsula and Japan becoming a nuclear power. China historically Korea was subordinate to China. I think what this means is that the closer North Korea comes — North and South Korea comes to reconciliation, to operating together, harmonizing their approach to the rest of the world, let’s say harmonizing their approaches to the United States, if they’re both friendly towards the United States, that will help to promote a whole process of stability in relation to Japan, Russia and China.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Very briefly. Do you think this is an irreversible process now or could this award be a little premature?

SELIG HARRISON: It’s not… It’s irreversible in the sense that I don’t think we’re going to go back to serious military tension on the Korean peninsula unless the United States fails to rise to its opportunity to act like the Cold War is over. And instead of just telling North Korea end your missile program, say we’re willing talk to about you how to end your missile program in which we might have to do some things too about our military posture If we’re too rigid, get a change in the administration and the new administration has a different policy from the way Clinton has been going in recent months, that could shower sour things. But the question is we shouldn’t have too great expectations for how fast it will go. It is going to be a slow process but it is definitely going in a good direction.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Selig Harrison, thanks a lot.