[Documents menu] Documents menu

Democracy a la Kim Dae Jung, Korea’s ‘Mandela’

By Anne O’Neill, Kimsoft, June 14, 1998

On Friday, June 12th, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung spoke at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium before a packed crowd of about 900 attendees. This was his only public appearance while in the San Francisco Bay Area.

President Kim has allowed many changes since taking office which have been reported to be quite effective in South Korea, but his speech and his comments to questions about political prisoners were so much in conflict with one another that it seemed to be schizophrenic in character.

Although he initially expressed strong support for democratic development concurrent with the development of a free market economy, he then contradicted himself in answers to the only two questions that were allowed—the first from an ISO member from a local Stanford/Palo Alto chapter, and the second from myself.

Although Kim Dae Jung actively advocates formal reunification of the country, he adamantly opposes ordinary South Korean citizens who are not part of the government in advocating such, referring to it as a crime (being ‘pro-North Korean’) in responses to questions. Sounds just like the response one would expect from a previous ‘republic.’

In answer to the first general question about there being hundreds of political prisoners and there being a lack of free speech in a pointed reference to President Kim’s just -completed statements about democracy being necessary for a free market economy, President Kim responded that ‘the numbers were wrong’ regarding political prisoners and that there were not hundreds of political prisoners, but only 20. Reliable international sources and the last New York Times article upon his release of those mostly deemed ‘traffic offenders’ cite a 400+ figure remaining behind bars.

But President Kim went on to say that all of the remaining political prisoners had been indicted on charges involving some form of violence, and that he could not support their release for that reason.

I went there with a friend who is a software industry journalist and he had penned a question he wanted me to ask which went, Your Excellency, How c an you build democracy without free speech? Blocking web sites and arresting labor leaders under the outmoded ’National Security Law’ is no way to gain the trust of Silicon Valley.

However, dissatisfied with the previous response, I instead stated, President Kim, when I was living in Kwangju in 1991, you yourself led the funeral procession for a young man (Kang Kyung Dae) whose skull had been crushed by police with steel core batons—a young man who had been merely an innocent bystander, and a folk singer... What about the cases of Pak Noh Hae and Suh Jun Sik, the former a poet and the latter having organized a human rights film festival—what was the violent nature of their crimes?

DJ’s answer, which went on for the last 10-15 minutes of only a 20-minute question/answer period, shocked all in attendance. He stated that although he believed in freedom of thought, he could not support freedom of speech, especially if it was critical of the government or ‘disruptive of social order.’

He added that, of course, those who openly admitted to being Communist or Socialist were being indicted, and that the U.S. or any other country does and would do the same. (Sounds like Clinton’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding gays in the military—which has not been all that effective in practice and which also offers no protection of civil liberties.) On top of all that, he emphasized the absolute necessity of enforcing the policy of mandatory recanting of ’Communist thinking.’

This seemed in direct conflict with his earlier-expressed ideas on democracy and ’freedom of thought,’ even with his expressed constraints on freedom of speech. President Kim’s remarks sparked gasps from the audience. While a vague and brief response would have done him well, his reply projecting South Korean intolerance for free speech as an international standard was not only inaccurate, but did not serve his political purpose according to Silicon Valley thinking.

There is an interesting article in IP (Intellectual Property) Magazine called ‘Fortress California’ about the libertarian-minded business execs of Silicon Valley that would tend to support the notion that many of them would abhor President Kim’s remarks on civil liberties and the enforcement of the National Security Law.

It was to the President’s credit that he did not ignore the questions, but it was to his discredit that he seemed to be so unaware of international human rights and free speech standards. He labeled ‘Communist’ and ‘pro-North Korean’ anyone who criticized the government, as in previous regimes in South Korea and in the U.S. during the McCarthy period, when anything critical of the U.S. was automatically determined to be the workings of a foreign government, and therefore ‘Communist propaganda.’

It was to his great disadvantage that he chose voluntarily to speak extensively about his views regarding restrictions on free speech, the mandatory recanting of the privately-held views of political prisoners for any possibility of release, and absolute intolerance of dissent.

President Kim would have gone on, but was cut off by George Schultz, who realized that it was serving no good purpose. Mr. Schultz also corrected the President that, no, we don’t arrest people for being a Communist or Socialist here or for expressing their views. George Schultz, however, is a cold war ‘warrior,’ and President Kim is a ‘great democratic leader’ who has undergone much suffering. Hearing Mr. Schultz offer advice on tolerance of dissent and respect for civil liberties to President Kim was not an expected scenario.

As I was leaving the event, chatting with a Korean journalist friend who is rather conservative politically, we agreed that, It’s freedom of speech, as long as you don’t say too much, in practice, which is probably what President Kim meant, but the tolerance levels in the current power structure in the States are higher... while tolerance of dissent in South Korea appears to be nonexistent.